Failure is more than an option

I recently came across this Tedx talk from Mark Rober, which I highly recommend you take a look at. It may be 15 minutes of your life, but I think it will be well worth the reminder. I came across Mark via my kids. They watch a lot of YouTube now, which seems to flip flop between watching people playing first person shooter games, which I worry about, and watching science and maths videos, which I actively encourage. I’m not sure if they watch the science to stop me stopping them watching the other content, but I’m trying not to think about that.

I really enjoyed this video and it reminded me, through game characters and fun science projects, of a key fact, something that we often forget in the world of work and adult responsibility, and that is that failure is a part of learning, or to put it another way we need to reframe the challenges we face so that we can stand the best chance of succeeding.

The video got me thinking about how I could apply this in my workplace, and how we might apply this more widely to life. So here are three tips on how you can practically apply what Mark is talking about and start to move from a mindset of challenge and difficulty to a mindset of fun and success.

1 – Reframe the Challenge – Turn Hoops to Hopes

Life Is Either A Daring Adventure Or Nothing At All. – Helen Keller

If I think through the everyday part of my work, either as a coach or as an IT leader, it can be easy to see the mundane and plodding nature of my work. How often is the daily story to wander through the streets, earbuds in, head down. Perhaps we add a coffee to wake things up and get us to our computer screen, and then trudge through the emails, glancing at our calendar to see what meetings are going to stop us doing anything more productive. My goodness, that’s depressing just writing it down!

Or perhaps we could think about how we plan projects or new work. Many times we can view these as a sequence of documents, approvals and “hoops” to jump through. I am guilty of this, even when the project or change itself is exciting and something that I really believe in.

But it doesn’t have to be like this. If we can start to view the projects and changes that we work on as fun adventures, and start to reframe them and see them as a child might see learning to build a fort, or riding a bike, then we stand a much better chance of getting to the end of them faster, with more energy intact and an increased chance of a better outcome.

And it’s not just me and a crazy YouTube guy saying this. It’s actually backed up by some serious science. There are articles on how turning challenge into adventure can inspire leaders, build knowledge and competency in students, combat mental health challenges and much more. All this research shares a simple principle, the principle of changing our perspective. From eyes down, to eyes wide. From a sigh to a laugh. From fear to excitement. If we start to shift our perspective then we will positively change our results.


Take a moment to think about an aspect of your life or work that you are finding particularly challenging. Close your eyes, and image how you can turn the challenge into adventure. If you’re struggling to see it as an adventure then perhaps think about:

  • How would someone that inspires me think about that?
  • Imagine someone you respect and admire walking up to you and offering you a gift to help you. What would that gift be? What is its significance?
  • If my challenge was the subject of a children’s book, what would the next chapter of the story be?

2 – Believe – and if you can’t break it down until you can

“The moment you doubt whether you can fly, you cease for ever to be able to do it.” ― J. M. Barrie, Peter Pan

I’m a huge fan of a story that I read about Richard Branson, the CEO of Virgin, and adventurer. I might have embellished it as I re-imagined it again and again, but it goes something like this. Richard was stuck at a foreign airport and was frustrated by the long delay of his flight home, so he decided he would do something about it. He got a flip chart, and wrote on the top asking people to sign up if they wanted to cost share to get home. With the money he chartered an aircraft and flew everyone home. This gave him the seed of an idea that he could build an airline. He started (and this is the bit I really love) by taking a piece of paper and writing “Virgin Atlantic Airline” on the top, and then he listed out all the things he would need to do to make that happen. Practical things like “get aircraft”, “hire pilots”, “uniforms for cabin crew”, “food” etc. And then… he did it!

The story of Virgin is a very interesting one, full of inspiration, and I highly recommend getting this book which will give you the full story, but what I really love is the belief.

Of all the goals and challenges that you might be facing, it’s possible that they might be as large as trying to start up an international airline, but I doubt that is the case for most of us. Therefore, we should be inspired to start with a blank sheet of paper and write our goal at the top, and then list out the steps that we need to get there, believing that it can be done.

I’ve experienced a number of project management methods, and task management systems. Some so boring that you might be tempted to question why bothering, but they all share a common goal, to breakdown large and seemingly difficult tasks into smaller more manageable blocks. Product breakdown structures and product backlogs turn large and complex ideas into manageable chunks. A recipe turns a difficult looking food item into a series of steps we can follow. Even in simple projects a bulleted list can take something that seems unachievable and help to turn it into actionable and manageable steps.


Practice the simple task of taking a concept, project or idea that seems complex and breaking it down into a series of practical tasks. Use a piece of paper.

  • Write the name of the challenge / project at the top.
  • Underline it. Consider drawing a picture of the what the challenge means.
  • Spend a few minutes asking yourself if you really believe that you can achieve it. Do you understand how? Can you see in your mind what you need to achieve it?
  • If not, then break it down into high level goals.
  • Repeat this process until you have sufficiently broken down the challenge that you start to get excited and really believe that you will be able to achieve it.

3 – Just keep swimming

Just keep swimming – Dory, Finding Nemo

Please, please tell me that you’ve watched the Pixar film, Finding Nemo? If you haven’t then do. In fact watch all the Pixar films because they are all amazing and inspiring. Don’t get me started. There’s a whole blog just on Pixar!

The most memorable quote is the blue tang’s song of “just keep swimming”. Even if we have reframed the challenge and convinced ourselves that everything is possible we are going to come across setbacks. My goodness, we’re probably going to get knocked pretty frequently, and the more we aim for ambitious goals the more likelihood that we’re going to hit difficulties. To return to where we started let’s look at video games. I can remember playing the computer game lemmings time after time, after time on a particularly difficult level because I really wanted to get to the end and complete the whole game. I had setback after setback, but I just kept on going, slowly learning and refining my technique until I finally got it.

I guess that work and life isn’t quite the same as a computer game, and perhaps thats the point. A computer game doesn’t give you sarcastic praise, or send you a “read between the lines” email, or raise it’s eyebrows at your latest attempts. It just presents you with the facts, and sometimes even encourages you to try again.

I used to have a manager who’s quote was “Just keep doing what you believe is right and it will work out”. I used to hate that quote, but I’ve grown to see that there was actually a lot of truth in it. The hard part for me was to “just keep doing”. I guess there are a lot of questions on how you keep motivated, how you remain resilient in the face of setbacks, or how you deal with real failures and difficulties in life that are bigger than a project or a new years resolution to keep fit. But at the hart of it all if we can keep swimming and moving forward then we are moving towards our goals, and that’s a great thing.


Practice the simple task of taking a concept, project or idea that seems complex and breaking it down into a series of practical tasks. Use a piece of paper.

  • Consider a motivational quote or mug to keep you focused when you meet a setback.
  • Think about people who have inspired you in the past, and reflect on how they dealt with setbacks.
  • Consider including a positive celebration of success into your daily routine.

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