3 Key Obstacles to Success and How to Overcome Them
What Holds Us Back from Success
The biggest anchor holding back most people’s success ship has their name on it. We are our own worst enemies. As Pogo said, "I have seen the enemy and he is us!". Unhappily, the things we fear are usually much greater in mass than the things we hope for.
Fear is infinite and is almost always built on worst case scenarios that can never happen. So, every idea we have, has to climb a Himalaya size mountain range of personal terror before it sees even a glimmer of sunrise.
Given that we want to be successful, we need to identify each mountain of fear that exists for us personally, and deal with that before our ideas are euthanised..
Barriers to Success
1. The Fear and Stigma of Failure
Everyone fears failure, so that’s one mountain. The fear of failure is often more tangible than the incentives for success, so ideas die at the inception stage. Each of us knows most of his/her own weaknesses. We worry about our laziness, our lack of imagination, our inexperience, our track record of giving up and unless we can master these other mountains, success would be torn to tatters before it gathers any momentum.
Somewhere between our mother’s view that we are a genius just waiting for an opportunity to arrive and our brother’s or sister’s view that we are a complete doofus that would trip over the only rock on the desert of opportunity, there is a considered and realistic middle ground that we have to find, giving a path through the fear mountains.
Bill Gates and his partner, Paul Allen, did not start with Microsoft. They started their first company, Traf-o-Data aimed to process and analyze the data from traffic tapes. Big data is now in but, at that time, nobody was interested in their idea. It ended in disaster. If both Bill Gates and Paul Allen stopped right there, Microsoft would not be there or a different version would have been brought on by other entrepreneurs. They were lucky they live in the United States, the country which has the lowest individual fear of failure of all surveyed.
Fear of blowing it is so intense in Japan that not many Japanese are entrepreneurs. Failure can be debilitating and the Japanese are just learning, what many Americans do, hide it behind narrative fallacies or hire spin doctors to soften, even nullify the impact of failure. If you fail, the entire family bears the shame. This is changing slowly.
In India, where the pressure to win a seat in one of the top institutes of technology, there are many reported suicides among the young aspirants. Missing the chance is shameful given the families total commitment to youth success. Even in North America, the fear of failure is prevalent in many aspects of our society and intense in many individual lives and this is the most supportive of environments.
Francesc Masriera's Painting of After the Ball
The Internal Fear of Failure
The failure fear felt by many has acutely affected their chances of success. While we hail many who have built on the learning from their failures to reach tremendous achievements, the collateral damage from failure lies around us and we don't want to undermine our own self confidence.
There are suggestions around organizing an Embrace Failure Day, or having institutions organize Failure Week, helping us face our fear of failure so we can climb the mountains and see a sunrise. We know that a failure accepting environment like Silicon Valley becomes the real seedbed of invention, so how do we help achieve some of this at home?
As an illustration, I will share my own experience. I am 65 years old. It was only recently that I sorted out what I had been doing or maybe what had been happening to me. I first thought that I was not really a success because I didn't know what I really wanted to do in life. As a result, I concentrated my effort on trying things out endlessly so I could discover what I really wanted to do. But somehow, I had not succeeded after doing this for over 30 years. I went from one thing to the next with some success but not really satisfying and never pushing any one activity hard enough to really fail...or succeed.
One day, I had a do it yourself epiphany. It became clear to me that all these years I had allowed everything to happen to me; that I had not taken hold of myself nor taken 100% responsibility for my life. Why? I was paralyzed by my fear of failure. Incredulous was my initial reaction but true. I just had to face it.
At first, I worked on my fears. I tried to understand what they are and how they influence my actions and decisions. I pounded on this for some time until my fears' hold on me were no longer fierce and I could often thwart it. A therapist also taught me how to make friends of my fears and this helped tremendously. I can look at what went wrong and do something about it or just assure my inner self it is no longer unconquerable. I could do something about it so the fear slowly disappeared.
Now, I live my life with fuller awareness, not out of fear. I choose. I no longer just react and because what I am doing is not a reaction, I don't quit. I take deliberate steps, own the outcomes, test them out, and steer the next step based on what I have learned.
In other words, I now have reasonable control of my actions. I decided and gave a chosen activity my full commitment. Not anymore, oh I'll do it when I'm free or I'll test it out or I'll see if I like it. No. I decided and focused on the chosen task till completion.
My productivity has gone up, my complaints are gone, my hating of life for giving up a career is all gone. This is what I like to do now and I give it my all. I have come to enjoy my day more. I no longer count my own input. I just do what I can do and do it and give it my all. Remember Aesop's fox. He wanted a bunch of grapes with all his heart but he could not reach them. He jumped and jumped....and then so he could avoid failure he exclaimed..."ahhhh, they are probably sour!!!!" He won by failing...sort of.
Which Way to Success
The Stigma of Failure and the Blame Culture
There is another side to failure that not only impacts individuals but the society as a whole. As a society, we may have learned from our family, our school, our Church and from one another that failure is bad. If we don't graduate nor get promoted to another level or make the varsity team, we fail. But if we don't really try, we can rationalize the failure very easily. So our fear of failure makes us fail!
The stigma is there and this includes your family. Your parents get embarrassed feeling that they have failed in raising you and the community thinks they are really bad parents. Thus, early on, this fear of failure has been entrenched and has stigmatized us and has taught us failure mechanisms that save everyone from embarrassment.
We observe this in the behaviours of our politicians and government people. They blame the previous administration for whatever goes wrong. They blame the media for not reporting the truth. Our church leaders blame the entertainment industry or other social changes for the dwindling numbers of church goers. Schools blame the internet for the inability of students to get good scores in tests. Fans blame coaches when their team loses. We can cite endless examples of blame in our society.
So, it is not only the internal fear we have to overcome but also the external culture of blame that is stoking this up. The question is, how do we make our environment a personal Silicon Valley where a failure is just the next step on the ladder to success.
The Book on How We Deal with Failure
I just finished reading this book by Matthew Syed, a leading columnist and feature writer for The Times. Before becoming a writer, Matthew was for almost a decade the number one table tennis player in England, won the Commonwealth Championship 3 times and represented Great Britain twice in the Olympic Games. He knows what it is to challenge our thinking around success.
In this book, Black Box Thinking, he exhorts us to change the way we look at failure, take away the stigma associated with it and look at it as the best opportunity for us to learn. He gives us example after example of what he means by black box thinking and how we need to let systems in health care, criminal justice, education, corporation and our own selves take the lessons of the black box in aviation. This is to look at failures and see these as learning opportunities; to see how marginal gains are necessary to high performance and to do trials to test out policies and plans.
Read this to be convinced by all the examples Syed has included.
2. Limiting Beliefs and A Fixed Mindset
My father-in-law used to say, "It ain't what you don't know that hurts you, it's what you do know that just ain't so". We have beliefs we hold on to even when people tell us they are not true. We tell them it worked for us for years even though we have not really tested its veracity. We know it didn't not work....because we never really tested it.
Examples of limiting beliefs also abound in history. In the middle ages, doctors used bloodletting as it was the prevailing belief that it cured people. Because it was widely accepted as effective, there was no need to look for alternative cures. That the earth is flat has been widely accepted for a long time. Today, in ourselves, in organizations and in many social institutions, there are beliefs that are accepted as truths. Nobody questions these. In the old times, questioning accepted beliefs could get you burned!
In his book on Elon Musk, Ashlee Vance gave examples of how Musk's claims of what SpaceX could deliver had been judged by experts as not possible but Musk did it. If he believed the experts, he would not have been able to succeed in pushing our knowledge on space technology. Then Musk did the same with electric cars and challenged the belief structure built by the auto industry to mask their own inability to invent.
Those who are at the top of the current system often believe that everything works well and there may be the usual little changes done each year but the frame is solid. That is a Fixed Mindset. They have put together the current system and succeeded in it and they are not prepared to accept that they were wrong or there are things they did not see properly. Judges and prosecutors, for example, who have proclaimed persons guilt will hardly welcome insinuations that they made a mistake in their judgment. Many languish in prison because of this kind of mentality. Bad technology fills the roads because of fear of failure for new ideas. In the workplace, few managers will accept that they made a mistake in their choice of staff even when they see their performance. Board members will hardly accept that they made a mistake in their choice of a CEO. Dooduses survive and are promoted!
Because of fixed mindset, things stay as they are for many years even if almost everyone sees they don't work that well nor are they effective. One example is the education system in many countries. Most know the system is no longer working if its main job is to support learning but few are prepared to change it. Some educators think it is the best they can do and it only needs to be more effective but the system is alright. Many planners think they can only do so much and they keep going back to what they know already and what they have done before. Some even think they have an instinct of what to do and there is no need to test out their ideas, just implement them. Limiting beliefs.
This is what the space technology experts told Musk about his ideas but Musk refused to see these limits and hammered his people to make it happen. He won and now other countries are lining up to use the rockets he has made.
3. Negative Thoughts
Negative thoughts we can relate to easily. Our mind has the power to haunt us with our failures, remind us of these every moment and, as such, cause continuing stress in addition to the new mistakes we make day to day. The stress some of these negative thoughts even result in sickness and death in many people. Marley's chain just gets longer and heavier.
But even in our day to day existence, our mind has ways of bringing about negative limiting thoughts. If we drop our breakfast plate, we tell ourselves, this will not be a good day. We start thinking of things that could go wrong not the things that bring us joy or satisfaction. Even worse, we start blaming ourselves for these things so by the time we get to work or go to school, our minds are already expecting the negative so everything that happens will be viewed in a negative way.
Mind you, our minds are experts in this. It rolls out scenario after scenario of negative things that could happen that by the time we stop, we're already in such a state that nothing positive can get our attention. We selectively pick out experiences that support the negative image and cement failure. The Black Cat Syndrome can destroy your life!
On Our Way to Success
How do We Overcome these Obstacles?
We live in a very complex world so whatever suggestions we take must consider all these ideas as working together to put anchors on our success. So, what steps can we take so we overcome these major obstacles? Here are some suggestions:
1. Make failure a friend, a necessary step in the process of growing, of creating, of expanding. In fact, it is an important part of winning because it shows us that there are other ways, maybe better ways of pursuing something.
2. Read biographies of famous, successful people and count the number of failures they had on the road to each success. You will be amazed!
3. Students can learn levels of course work on their own with the help of the teachers or the other classmates but not expect everyone to go through these at the same time and the same way. They can be allowed to learn things differently, testing out other ways of learning the same theory for example. The curriculum must make students test, try out, practice consistently until they become proficient.
4. Encourage questions, debates and discussions as well as criticism within the family, in school, among friends, in any institution and at work.
5. For many of us, work on our fears especially the fear of failure. There are many ways of doing this and help is there for those who want to do it seriously. When we do this, we also encourage others around us to do the same and more importantly, the loop of negativism gets opened up when they reach us and are transformed into positive learning experiences.
6. Challenge fixed mindsets or any mindset. Most of us are fixated on something. In some companies, we can laugh at some of our long held beliefs. Keep these kinds of companies. Bringing it to our awareness is part of the process of getting a handle to changing it.
7. Work on defeatist thoughts and negative talk. It is not as simple as telling ourselves, don't think that or don't do that. So what we can do is identify the verbal statements that negative thoughts take and place a positive alternative beside it. In the chart below are some examples to which you can add more. Let it work like a check list as you practice in changing towards a more positive way of communicating.
Examples of how we can change negative communication to its positive alternative
I'm really not good at this
I will give it a try
I don't like working with other people
I will start working with one or two I am comfortable with
What you suggest will not work
I will see how I can make it work
We don't have the resources to do that
Let's see how we can move some resources so we can try doing this
I don't think I can do that work
I'll give it a try
I have no time to do that work
I'll look at my schedule and see where I can fit this in
That work is too complicated for me
I will give it a try and see where I can get help to do this
I always get the worst weeks for vacation
Let's take a look at the calendar and see how we can work out our vacation schedule
The Most Difficult Obstacle to Overcome
Which of these is for you the most difficult to overcome?
Onward to Success
So what do we conclude? We are our own worst enemy. We can do something about this. Others have shown us. It's our own determination that will make a difference.
© 2018 Mary Norton