Better to Try and Fail Than Fail to Try

“Better to Try and Fail Than Fail to Try”

We were on a family vacation to Southeast Asia and had gone to the famed Singapore Zoo for their “Breakfast With the Orangutans” event. In addition to literally having breakfast with the orangutans, the package included a tour of the zoo before it opened and watching the animals being fed.

Of particular note were the lion and tiger areas. The animals were beautiful, and the environments impressive, but we were amazed at the measures they used to contain these ferocious beasts. While we had seen similar animals at other zoos, the other zoos used strong glass, metal fences or deep troughs to make sure that both human and animal remained safe. At the Singapore Zoo, they used “psychological barriers”.

These barriers consisted of waterways between the animal area and the walkway for humans. As the name would imply, the cats could conceivably cross these waterways if they so chose. It was less of a physical barrier and more of a psychological barrier, dependant on the cats’ aversion to water.

My wife was videotaping the as yet unfed cats and narrating as she went. She was just explaining these psychological barriers when one of the lions suddenly stopped pacing back and forth at the water’s edge and entered the water till he was chest deep. The tenor in my wife’s voice changed dramatically as her confidence in the psychological barrier decreased rapidly.

Fortunately, the cat went no further, and the barrier did its job.

Psychological barriers exist not just for animals in the zoo. Each of us has them. In many cases they keep us safe. In other cases they help us behave. And in other cases, they keep us from attaining our full potential.

I was chatting with a young man not long ago, and he said, “I want to climb Mount Everest someday.”

I replied, “Wonderful! Go for it!”

He countered, “But I don’t think I can make it to the top.”

“Then you certainly will not.” I responded. This comment was met with a shocked stare.

He had constructed an unnecessary and counterproductive psychological barrier. There are many things in life that are virtually impossible to do unless we know we can do it. Climbing Mount Everest is one of them. Running a successful business is another.

I had a conversation with another young man several years ago. I was serving as an adult volunteer on a backpacking trip with Big City Mountaineers, and we were with five inner city youth from Florida. After what seemed like an eternity, we crested the Continental Divide in Colorado, overcoming considerable whining and complaining. As we were taking a break at the very crest of the Divide, one of the young men said, “You know Mr. Dave, when I grow up I’m going to move to Colorado and become a lawyer.”

That young man had countless psychological barriers, some inflicted upon him, some self-imposed. But two of those barriers vaporized with his new goal.

We also have such barriers in our work and in our careers. They might manifest themselves in inadequate confidence to apply for that promotion, or ill-founded certainty that a particular employee will never do a good job. It could be that the new business venture that wasn’t even considered was worth considering. While we still want to be sure to keep in place those barriers that protect us, it is usually far better to try and fail than to fail to try. Many of the things we think are impossible are made impossible only by our proclamation that they are so.

More failure is caused from lack of trying than from trying and then failing.

Some things to keep in mind:

  • Next time someone makes a suggestion and you are tempted to answer, “We already tried that”, or “That won’t work”, let them finish making their suggestion and let it digest for a day or two.
  • If you find yourself about to dismiss a course of action because success seems improbable, ask yourself how an admired mentor of yours might make it successful, or how your competitor might make it successful.
  • When considering taking action where the outcome is unlikely, ask yourself, “What is the worst thing that could happen if this fails?” Then ask, “What is the best thing that could happen if this succeeds?” Often the negative consequences are rather bearable and the positive consequences quite desirable.
  • As you read about people who have achieved remarkable success, ask yourself if you would have taken on such a challenge with any degree of confidence in success.