True failure is being unwilling to try or giving up too soon. Learning from trial and error is as natural as breathing and is part of our scientific method. Being wrong is not a failure; it is simply a precursor to being right. Do not let anyone tell you different.
The Fear of Failure is one of the most common restraints that holds people back from pursuing great ideas. Imagine if we could become totally free from the fear of failure. Imagine what we could then manifest and create. In this interview series, we are talking to leaders who can share stories and insights from their experience about “Becoming Free From the Fear of Failure.” As a part of this series, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Thomas L. Paul.
Thomas L. (Tom) Paul is an international team leader supporting the development, construction, and operation of global power, water, and other energy-related facilities in a life-long quest to aid the development of nations and provide for the needs of societies within. He presently serves as President & CEO of Productive Outcomes LLC, a management advisory company based in Dallas, Georgia. Tom, his wife Mei, and their children (all grown) consider the family as a primary source of their strength and success.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’?
Indeed. I grew up in a remote, small town in Texas. Our family lacked financial resources, so the living environment was a trailer house, not much food, not many clothes, and limited access to medical and dental care. Like so many others, this was all “normal” to me. Without transportation, money for college, or any hope of a reasonably paying job, my options were limited but thankfully included military service. I loved to study anything and everything (am one of those persons that would read encyclopedia volumes one by one) so chose the branch of military that appeared to offer the most challenging schools. I joined the U.S. Navy and enrolled in its nuclear power program, spending a total of eight years therein with duty stations on ship, submarine, and shore.
The technical knowledge gained in naval service fed my passion for machines and the things they produce. Water, steam, electricity, air, oxygen…I was in constant amazement at what the machines, created by people, could produce for the betterment of those same people. And I found that nuclear power is not much different from power generated from other sources including hydrocarbons, the sun, wind, rivers, etc.
While in the Navy, I visited a country in North Africa and first observed the challenges of societies that have not yet fully developed. The lack of modern sanitary systems, access to water, reliable electricity…the local people accepted their living conditions as normal, much as I did in the family trailer house, though I had much better conditions. After leaving the Navy, one of my early work assignments was for a new power station in Southeast Asia. The conditions there were much better than North Africa at the time, but I could easily observe the improvement in local quality of life brought by the new power plant…reliable electricity, road infrastructure, jobs for people living in nearby “kampongs”, money to pay for kids’ clothes and education. My passion flared and have spent the intervening years since that time attempting to replicate these positive results in other nations. For my employers, companies, and teams, this has included countries in Asia, Europe, Middle East, South America, and yes…even here at home in the U.S., though it is admittedly harder for a small pebble to make a ripple in a big pond.
Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
There are many interesting stories, but one that sticks out in the context of this interview is about my first pair of dress shoes bought after leaving the Navy. You see, one of the company’s best salespersons had sold an impossible project to design, build, staff, develop approximately 100 technical training courses, and start instruction to power plant students in a new, industry training center in a northern U.S. state, with class instruction guaranteed to start within six months, this counting the winter months. To everyone but the salesperson, this was absolutely impossible to achieve. All the experienced managers and supervisors in the company rejected the project management assignment. Being young and relatively new to the company, I volunteered to take it on. The company in its wisdom decided I should be promoted to manager to have the needed organizational clout, so I went out and bought a new pair of black, wing-tip shoes. At the next company function, the wife of my former supervisor apparently had a few too many drinks and, after spying my new shoes, proceeded to loudly chastise me for using the shoes to indicate I am somehow better than her husband, and she demanded that I take them off (and she was not kidding!).
While the shoe story is certainly funny to me and I hope to others, the real message is that by volunteering for something perceived impossible by others, I shaved years off my path to management without any risk to my career. You see, everyone already thought the project was impossible, I had everything to gain and nothing to lose by volunteering.
You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
For each new undertaking, I first emphatically envision the win at the back end. High-fives, ticker-tape parade, champagne corks popping. Heroes all! The only remaining action is to mentally look back to observe how I did it. Easy-peasy. What a constant optimist! This character trait overrides all my others.
Am also a brief-pessimist in that I plan for and incorporate setbacks. Life teaches that no matter how hard we work, or how well we plan, or how smart we think we are, unforeseen obstacles will arise. Some of these obstacles will be small bumps in the road, some will be heart-wrenching body blows. Count on it. I confront each new obstacle with optimism and quickly switch to solutions-mode. So, I am also a pessimist, but only briefly.
A third important character trait of mine is knowledge insecurity. I believe that many of my past failures of significant magnitude stem from making decisions with insufficient information, or decisions made with poor understanding of the available information. As a result, I over-study almost everything, especially situational input data and formal contracts. Drives my employees (and wife) nuts but is tremendously helpful in raising confidence and overcoming my natural fear of failure. I promised myself a long time ago that the expected occasional failure will not be due to my lack of study of the available information.
These three character traits work together to overwhelm my fear of failure and allow me to see clear paths ahead.
For example, let us consider the story shared above regarding a guarantee to start power plant training classes in a northern State within six months. By applying the rule of “envisioning the win”, we begin by imagining students in chairs in a classroom with an instructor at the front. With study of the contract, we note that the guarantee made to the customer is to start power plant training within six months, a guarantee specific to training, not construction. A solution is immediately obvious…build or rent temporary classrooms while construction proceeds on the permanent facility. This is what we did and the customer was satisfied. Being a brief-pessimist, we scheduled readiness at five months instead of six in case something went wrong (which of course it did).
A more recent example involves construction of a power plant overseas. The construction contractor was horribly late and, without sale of electricity to the local power grid, financial survival of the plant owner would be in doubt. By “envisioning the win”, it was obvious that the power plant had to be connected to the power grid in timely manner and delivering billable energy as per its agreement with the local utility. With study, we determined that the utility power sales agreement did not specifically require the construction contract to be concluded. With contractor cooperation, we re-tasked the near-term work to focus on satisfying requirements in the utility power sales agreement then declared the plant operational. The construction contractor finished its work under contract over a year later.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out the concept of becoming free from failure. Let’s zoom in a bit. From your experience, why exactly are people so afraid of failure? Why is failure so frightening to us?
I believe fear of failure is learned starting from our first words and steps as children. Success is rewarded with candy or banana pudding. Failure is punished by lack of candy, or worse. Kill the dinosaur and get meat; fail to kill the dinosaur and get eaten. The winner gets the trophy. Fail an exam and be denied the academic achievement. The successful salesperson receives more compensation. A failed project manager gets a pink slip. The negative consequences of failure exist in almost every aspect of our lives, and this naturally gives rise to a fear of it.
We will not purge the win/lose aspect of human existence from our societies anytime soon. And properly channeled, our insecurities and fear of failure can be powerful motivation to succeed.
What are the downsides of being afraid of failure? How can it limit people?
The risk of failure may be perceived to be so great that a person chooses not to take any action beyond the minimum required to perpetuate his or her existence. As result, the person and/or society fails to further develop and prosper. And in competitive circumstances, failure to exert oneself beyond the minimum will itself cause the failure which was feared in the first place.
Consider the business society in some nations that offer relatively flat salaries in jobs for life. In such nation, you will draw your salary until retirement, like everyone else in your pay grade, provided you do not embarrass your company with notable failure. As result, individual decisions are made based on risk of loss (job) instead of opportunity for gain (pay and promotion). While this arguably may be wise for the employee in that non-competitive environment, the employing company is usually characterized by volatile financial performance year to year and forever touting its next five-year recovery plan as it reacts to various global events.
In most other nations, we live in constant competition at school, at work, in our relationships, etc. If excessive fear of failure causes us to stand still, not reaching or stretching for that next milestone, we will avoid the joy of achievements, higher compensation, new relationships, etc. And if our competitors are not fearful and continue to advance, we risk falling out of the race entirely. Being released or made redundant in our jobs, dropping out of school, failure of our relationships, these are likely results of being overly afraid to fail. That is, we inevitably cause what we fear.
In contrast, can you help articulate a few ways how becoming free from the fear of failure can help improve our lives?
Becoming free from failure includes realization that you are already a winner simply by making your best effort. And now that you know that you live in the winner category, you smile more. You walk with your head up and your eyes open. You realize that every opportunity you encounter is going to be a success, even if it is not. Failure is no longer a negative word or event; it is instead an expected occasion giving rise to a new learning experience.
Freeing oneself from the fear of failure restores your childlike wonder to things you have not yet done. Your enthusiasm is restored as an active component of your character. You finally ask that boss for a pay raise, and you start a conversation with that special person you have studied from afar. Your can-do attitude drives you to new heights of achievement.
Removing the fear of failure changes everything.
We would love to hear your story about your experience dealing with failure. Would you be able to share a story about that with us?
I have a lot of failures to choose from. One of my greatest occurred when challenged to expand my employer’s business overseas. We needed new markets to survive; I chose Southeast Asia for the expansion since large capital projects were still normal in that region. So, I packaged our U.S. resources and service offerings and went to Asia wearing a sales hat. Two years later, having written lots of proposals but with no significant sales revenue, I was forced to admit my arrogance and ignorance thinking Asian customers would throw money at proven U.S. solutions.
Humbled but determined, I started with a new blank piece of paper and a studying attitude. After discovering something called “purchase power parity”, I reconfigured the company’s offerings and prices for Asia markets and redefined the characteristics of a perfect customer there. The results exceeded our expectations and led to business expansion throughout the region, as well as providing strategy for expansion into other nations.
As you can see, an essential element to our international business success was having a great employer that allowed my initial failure; a failure I thereafter used to launch the inevitable business success.
How did you rebound and recover after that? What did you learn from this whole episode? What advice would you give to others based on that story?
If your present approach is not working, be willing to reexamine your assumptions and change your perspective (and be quicker about it than me). And never give up. Know absolutely that each failure brings you one step closer to success.
Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. In your opinion, what are 5 steps that everyone can take to become free from the fear of failure”? Please share a story or an example for each.
Five steps to become free from fear of failure (I describe these further below):
• Re-define what failure means to you.
• Characterize your intended outcome (point B).
• Precisely define your present circumstances (point A).
• Write down the steps to move from point A to point B.
• Plan for and incorporate the inevitable setbacks.
1. True failure is being unwilling to try or giving up too soon. Learning from trial and error is as natural as breathing and is part of our scientific method. Being wrong is not a failure; it is simply a precursor to being right. Do not let anyone tell you different.
2. Write down the characteristics you believe correspond to the most positive outcome, the perfect “point B”. This firmly fixes the outcome in your mind (pre-disposing your internal drive to achieve it) and allows you to recognize success when you see it. And since outcomes are rarely perfect, determine acceptable ranges for your success criteria.
3. Study closely all the available information regarding the present circumstance to precisely define “point A”. I call this the input data set. Avoid the tendency to gloss over the details with generalities such as “we all know the problems we presently face”.
4. Write procedural baby-steps to move forward from point A to point B. For example, consider instructions to cook rice: (1) open the pantry door; (2) locate the bag of rice on the shelf; (3) lift and remove the bag of rice from the pantry; (4) shut the pantry door; (5) walk to the rice cooker….and so on. Trust me when I say that, with a good procedure and sufficient time, mountains can be moved with spoons.
5. On the path to point B, something unexpected will always arise. Plan for the unplanned; prepare alternate steps; budget time and resources to accommodate the disruption.
As you can see from the five steps above, becoming free from fear of failure is achieved not with a magic wand, but with a simple method. You only fail when you do not give your best effort, and you will always give your best effort applying these five steps. Failure becomes a word from the past and your confidence sky-rockets in everything you undertake.
The famous Greek philosopher Aristotle once said, “It is possible to fail in many ways…while to succeed is possible only in one way.” Based on your experience, have you found this quote to be true? What do you think Aristotle really meant?
A good question; sounds like he was a golfer. If to guess, I would say Aristotle was articulating a view that, in the realm of human endeavor, we rarely get things right the first time and have a multitude of excuses to explain why. Viewed generally, this is of course true and, after all, the most powerful force on the planet is our ability to self-justify our own shortcomings.
However, in the context of our work and business lives, I believe the opposite is true. That is, the cause of failure is singular (not making an honest effort) and the successful results are many (any result from an honest effort that advances our mission or society).
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Elevate prudent risk-taking in our staff performance measures regardless of outcome. Re-define failure to mean not trying.
We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them 🙂
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Company website: www.poadvisory.com.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent on this. We wish you only continued success.