I have met many people who tell me that they care deeply about excellence. And then behave in direct contradiction to that stated belief. And then others who claim they don’t care, but in a hobby or passion show a commitment to the very essence of excellence. Humans are confused by nature, and therefore our opinions about what we value are rarely worth much. If you tell me confidently you care about excellence, I am skeptical. If you tell me you don’t, I am even more skeptical. I need to see what you do, not listen to what you say, in order to discover your path to excellence.
But I can’t be there with you now, as you read this, and therefore we must start with a simple premise: you must discover the answer, not create it. Your individual greatness and excellence is not something that you create through an act of willpower. It isn’t something that someone else can give you. It isn’t even something that can really be taught. It is a diamond that is buried somewhere in the field of your brain. You are going to have to dig a lot of holes before you discover it.
Some people really don’t like digging. They are truly content and comfortable in their current state. And while I believe that this comfort puts them at economic and social risk, it is certainly their right to choose that existence. But most people don’t actually know that excellence is possible for them. They lack the awareness of their own potential. But even more insidious, most people actually hear the subtle whisper of their calling towards a better self, but don’t answer that call. Why? Because the shouts of their fear drown that whisper out.
This shout is the fear of failure. So much has been written about the benefits of failure and mistakes that I won’t belabor them here. I imagine you can take any list of 10 people you admire and find quotes from each of them about the importance of failure in their lives and learning process. But what I don’t think is commonly discussed is how to overcome this fear of failure. Neuro Linguistic programming, chanting, fist bumps, affirmations – all are proposed as ways to “psych yourself up”, to get ready to try something new. And like eating a candy bar, there is a certain rush that happens with these techniques. You do get a burst of energy. But the problem with candy bars is that the high is followed by a crash. In the pursuit of your potential, the crash can be deadly. It feeds your fears: “I tried something and failed. I was an idiot for trying.”
The difference I have seen between those who keep digging their holes and those who dig a hole and give up (or those who never dig at all) is the framing of the experience. This is best captured by Thomas Edison’s famous quote: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” My point is not that you just need to keep digging. Nor that you figure out a way to love failure (hint: you won’t). But that starting from the premise that you are going to have fun discovering means you really can’t fail. The lightbulb of your excellence will not burn bright if you aren’t don’t treat life as a series of experiments, each potentially revealing the path to unleashing your potential.
I love the concept of experimentation because it enables our mind to think of the pursuit of excellence as work to be done, not as something about our identity. And it is a lot easier to make work fun than convince our subconscious that we should find threats to our identity rewarding in some way.
With experiments, we externalize the exploration, rather than internalize it. Inside our head is the voice of the critic. It is the voice of our parent’s doubts about us, the “friends” who cast us out, the bullies who picked on us. These voices edit the script of our life as we live it. “Don’t do that, you won’t be good at it.” What if we aren’t good at it? What if we aren’t capable of greatness? The doubts flood in, and we don’t try. The mind has a million tricks to ensure that you don’t try something.
So don’t try to rev your mind up to overcome its fear. The fear is there. It exists. It is something that has to be productively dealt with so you can be all that you can be. Instead, see that you are just experimenting. You are discovering the evidence of your own excellence. Experiments don’t work. Constantly. It’s the mark of an experiment that it is likely to fail. If our experiments don’t fail, we probably aren’t doing it right. It’s just designing something, trying it, and getting information to a better picture.
Knowing that you are experimenting so you can discover is far easier for your mind to deal with than telling yourself that you are going to succeed, and then not doing it.