There is no perfect success, nor absolute failure. Getting closer to perfect success is like accelerating in a car. The amount of energy to accelerate from 50mph to 60mph is significantly less than what is required to from 100mph to 110mph. The environment works against you, which is why perfect success requires expensive engineering and significant time investment.

For every percentage closer to perfect success, it requires an increasingly greater amount of energy and focus. We don't need success at those levels and rarely, if ever, do we ever encounter it. Even Steve Job's Apple design rigor had glaring faults that were overlooked not because they were perfect, but because they were better. There is definitely acceptable failures.

Early on in my career, I would read various military history and organization books to guide my misguided approach. While these stories have good ideas, the integration was toxic. The one lesson I still hold is about "victory conditions". I'm fortunate I took a different approach to learning to improve myself, one focused on compassion and empathy. But the victory condition holds, allowing me to abandon those good ideas that would be a mistake to pursue.

Thinking about a project as a set of discrete components enables me to think more clearly about success. It's no longer a switch between success or failure. Each component has clear expectations and allows measurement against those expectations. Success means nothing if it cannot be measured. Success that cannot be measured is not success but luck. How well can you repeat being lucky? 

Do something you may fail at

Success isn't everything. It's more important to continue to try new things, but to do so with a deliberate approach and a measurement of progress. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, the author of Flow and all around great researcher, has a lot to say around this. The summary is: Know what success looks like, pursue things you have a chance to fail at, and repeat a lot. That's the recipe for fulfillment and success.

 The "Flow Channel", demonstrating as our skills increase we must find the optimal path between anxiety and boredom.

The "Flow Channel", demonstrating as our skills increase we must find the optimal path between anxiety and boredom.

What's the right risk to take between failure and success? Commonly cited it's above a 60% chance to succeed. Below that anxiety can take over and be distracting. Careless mistakes can become critical, and it is harder to recover. If it's too high then it's easy to not put our best effort in. What's the point of practicing big things if we're not fully engaging ourselves. When success is all but guaranteed, it's far too easy to split attention, assume victory before arrival, and end up with an end result that nobody will be proud of. I do my best work when the risk of failure is real. I've never found a consistent way to fully focus my attention unless failure is a very real prospect.

 

I don't fear failure but I really don't like it.

This sounds like being motivated by fear. Being motivated by fear sucks. It isn't sustainable and rarely delivers top quality results. It delivers "working just hard enough to not get fired" results, which also can be restated as succeeding via self-justification while blaming others for the shortcomings. Success requires a belief that my actions contribute to the outcome in meaningful and important ways. Why are some people capable of delivering powerful, engaging products repeatedly? Because they've invested time to understand what engages users. Investing in skill development creates a direct and powerful link between actions and desired outcomes. Confidence in ability destroys the fear of failure. I don't fear what I can control or influence. If I can influence the outcome then fear is removed, or at least reduced.

Now I'm motivated by something far more powerful than fear. What matters is when the work is done I can honestly say that not only did I do my best, but my life before I made reasonable decisions on where to invest my time and energy. If I fail I know what to look at and where to improve. If I'm just being lazy and lying to myself then what can I possibly hope to improve? My lies to myself?

Success is created by the efforts before the project even starts. Success is built on the learning, practice and failures from the past.

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