Paddy Upton

To avoid failure or chase success?

I contend that personal mastery lays the foundation for professional success. By personal mastery, I mean turning the mirror inward to look at ourselves and in-so-doing, embarking on a never-ending journey of personal growth and learning to be the best version of ourselves. And this leads to sustained professional success.

One aspect of personal mastery includes understanding our relationship with success and failure. Specifically, when you begin any undertaking, are you guided more by avoiding failure or chasing success. The payoff for avoiding failure is that we get to ‘not look bad’ or ‘not feel bad’ and we avoid others criticizing or judging us negatively. By chasing success, we might get to look good and achieve that success, but we also run a higher risk of failing.

I recently had a conversation with one of most capped international 7-a-side rugby players. He told me how upon returning from injury, he was immediately re-integrated into the team for an international rugby 7’s tournament held in Hong Kong, which is one of the premier events on the international calendar. During the time he was out injured, a new coach had been appointed to the team.

He explained to me that at the end of the second game of the tournament, one of his team mates asked him what was wrong, questioning whether his injury was bothering him. His team mate specifically asked why he kept passing the ball each time it was passed to him, when the team was used to him being the play-maker, either attacking the opponents or doing something innovative to set up a chance to score. He admitted to me that he had in fact playing conservatively, not badly, but just not looking to making any plays that he was best known for. When I asked why, he said he didn’t want to make any mistakes.

He went on to explain that the new coach was very structured and planned, and prescribed very specific plays to the team. If a player deviated from the plan, or did not execute accurately, the coach would get visibly irate and upset. This result of this was that one of the most exciting players in world rugby, playing for his national team in a big tournament, was too scared to play his natural attacking game in case it led to a mistake. Not making a mistake meant his ‘boss’ would not get upset with him, but, as his team mates observed, this conservative, risk-averse approach meant that the team’s main play-maker also did not create opportunity to put points on the score board. He might not have been making any mistakes, but he was also not actively contributing to his team winning.

The conversation with his team mate made him realise that he had a choice; to either focus on avoiding failure, or to focus on pursuing success and scoring points through his natural innovative and creative game. The latter meant he might make mistakes along the way, and this might upset some people.

This conversation with one of the world’s best and most experienced play-makers in international rugby gave rise to the question we all have to answer at some point in our professional lives. How much should we invest time, energy and our natural strengths in avoiding failure and not making mistakes, compared to unleashing our talents in the pursuit of success. Each of these are fundamentally different mindsets.

In my latest book, The Barefoot Coach, I tell the story of asking Sanju Samson to bat at number 3 for Rajasthan Royals in one IPL game against Sunrisers Hyderabad. His role and clear instruction was to ‘survive Dale Steyn’ should he go in to bat while Steyn was still bowling in the powerplay. Sanju did get to face Dale that night, and his method of ‘surviving’ was to stand outside his crease, meet the ball on the half-volley, and send the 146.6km/hour delivery straight back over the world’s best bowlers head for a six of 78metres. I had asked Samson to ‘survive’, which is a defensive mindset, yet the theme for our team that season was ‘smart and attacking’. Sanju had thought his plan through clearly, so the ‘smart’ box was ticked. And hitting him over his head for six certainly ticked the attacking box. I was in fact in error to use the word ‘survive’, because batting in T20 cricket is not about surviving, it is about thriving. So is much of life, sport and business. Fortunately, Samson did not succumb to my error in thinking.

Finally, if you’re the boss, team coach or even a parent, be clear what you want from your employees, players or kids. What balance do you want between them being conservative and risk-averse compared to unleashing their talents in the pursuit of success? If you went the latter, then you will need to be very deliberate about how you react when someone does make the inevitable mistakes. Are you like the rugby coach mentioned above whose reactions drive fearful and risk averse behavior, or do you create an environment where people feel it’s ok to give their best efforts to win, knowing that failure will sometimes happen, and that’s ok. After-all, the path to success is paved with failure.

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