This morning I realized that I haven't had any big flameouts in my career. No major mistakes, no monumental screw-ups.
This isn't because I'm so perfect. It's because I haven't taken any huge risks. I go out on a limb a little ways, sure, but I'm always within my safety zone, working WITH a net.
I thought about this while reading Drucker's Take on Making Mistakes:
"Nobody learns except by making mistakes," Drucker wrote in his 1954 landmark book, The Practice of Management. "The better a man is, the more mistakes he will make—for the more new things he will try. I would never promote a man into a top-level job who has not made mistakes, and big ones at that. Otherwise, he is sure to be mediocre. Worse still, not having made mistakes he will not have learned how to spot them early and how to correct them."
The language is sexist, but the message is decidedly not. Big mistakes are a sign of growth and risk-taking. Of course, they must be tempered by successes, too, but if you're always worried about success, you're guaranteed to only nibble at the edges of your potential. You will stick with what's safe, with what you KNOW you can do, rather than going with what you have the potential to do.
Strangely, I've made a number of mistakes in my personal life and these major stumbles have been the greatest source of growth and learning for me. The trouble is, I don't seem to have made the leap from the personal to the professional. Not sure why.
Coincidentally (or maybe not--this always happens to me online), Tim Ferris has an article on why bigger goals mean less competition. It's really about having the courage to take on "impossible" tasks in part because they are more inspiring to achieve and because you'll probably be on your own in giving them a shot.
It’s lonely at the top. 99% of the world is convinced they are incapable of achieving great things, so they aim for the mediocre middle-ground. The level of competition is thus fiercest for “realistic” goals, paradoxically making them the most time- and energy-consuming. It is easier to raise $10,000,000 than it is $1,000,000. It is easier to pick up the one perfect 10 in the bar than the five 8s.
If you are insecure, guess what? The rest of the world is too. Do not overestimate the competition and underestimate yourself. You are better than you think.
Unreasonable and unrealistic goals are easier to achieve for yet another reason.
Having an unusually large goal is an adrenaline infusion that provides the endurance to overcome the inevitable trials and tribulations that go along with any goal. Realistic goals, goals restricted to the average ambition level, are uninspiring and will only fuel you through the first or second problem, at which point you throw in the towel.
Last week I said that if you do not work on important problems, you will not do important work. I must amend that statement to say that if you do not make big mistakes, you are not doing important work either. This is true for both individuals and organizations.
So the question is, how can you (and I) start screwing up more?