Permission to Fail

Here’s a handful of quotes to inspire you to fail and fail again because failure is an essential part of the creative process. It’s also a part of life.

If you’re not failing, maybe it’s because you’re not trying hard enough.

So go out there and fail better, fail faster. Rack up as many failures as you possibly can!

An essential aspect of creativity is not being afraid to fail. –Edwin Land

Success is going from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm. –Winston Churchill

The man who makes no mistakes does not usually make anything. –E. J. Phelps

It takes sixty-five thousand errors before you are qualified to make a rocket. –Werhner von Braun

If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original. –Ken Robinson

Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in. –Leonard Cohen

I have missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I have lost almost 300 games. On 26 occasions I have been entrusted to take the game-winning shot… and I missed. I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that’s precisely why I succeed. –Michael Jordan

To develop working ideas efficiently, I try to fail as fast as I can. –Richard P. Feynman

Would you like me to give you a formula for success? It’s quite simple, really. Double your rate of failure. You are thinking of failure as the enemy of success. But it isn’t at all. You can be discouraged by failure—or you can learn from it. So go ahead and make mistakes. Make all you can. Because, remember, that’s where you will find success. –Thomas J. Watson

Failure is a bruise, not a tattoo. –Jon Sinclair

An inventor is almost always failing. He tries and fails maybe a thousand times. If he succeeds once then he’s in. –Charles Kettering

I failed my way to success. –Thomas Edison

Ever tried? Ever failed? No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. –Samuel Beckettt

To be wrong is nothing unless you continue to remember it. –Confucius


The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas. –Linus Pauling

If I have a thousand ideas and only one turns out to be good, I am satisfied. –Alfred Nobel

I’m a perfectionist, which I think is a mistake. –Michelle Shocked

So try not to be too attached to any of the ideas you currently have or to take failure personally. Use the results—good or bad—as feedback not as evidence. And begin again.

Look for Limitations

When Phil Hansen was in art school, he developed a shake in his hand that prevented him from drawing a straight line. He was interested in pointillism at the time, but the technique exacerbated the problem to the extent that eventually he gave up art. The shake in his hand didn’t go away. The neurologist who told him he had permanent nerve damage suggested he “embrace the shake.” So he did.

Embracing the shake meant embracing limitation, which is what led him to discover that working on a larger scale with bigger materials was easier on his hand.

This was the first time I encountered the idea that embracing limitation could actually drive creativity.

In the video below of his TEDx talk in Kansas City, Hansen says:

I realized that if I ever wanted my creativity back I had to stop trying so hard to think outside of the box and get back into it.

He set out to impose all kinds of constraints on the art he created. The image at the top of this post was the result of his intention to create something for under a dollar. (When he asked someone at Starbucks for 50 empty cups, he got them.)

You become more creative by actually looking for limitations.

He’s written a book about creating art aimed at “kids” from 8 to 70 titled Tattoo a Banana: And Other Ways to Turn Anything and Everything Into Art.

Looking at limitations as the source of creativity changed my life.

It’s impossible to create anything, do anything, or just be (alive) without experiencing limitations. The trick is not only to look for limitations, but also to embrace them.

Z Is for Zombie Systems

What could zombie systems (also known as alien subroutines) and blindfolded cup-stacking possibly have to do with behavior change? Quite a bit, as it turns out. But first, what exactly are these zombie systems and alien subroutines? According to David Eagleman in Incognito:

We harbor mechanical, “alien” subroutines to which we have no access and of which we have no acquaintance. Almost all of our actions—from producing speech to picking up a mug of coffee—are run by alien subroutines, also known as zombie systems.

Eagleman uses the terms interchangeably. He says the term zombie emphasizes the lack of conscious access, while alien emphasizes the foreignness of the programs.

Some alien subroutines are instinctual, while some are learned; all highly automated algorithms become inaccessible zombie programs when they are burned down into the circuitry.

Cup-Stacking Smack-Down

Cup-stacking, at least as performed by Austin Nabor, is an example of a highly automated algorithm—and thus a zombie system.

Nabor has been practicing all the moves involved in cup-stacking regularly for several years. As a result, physical changes have taken place in his brain to hard-wire cup-stacking. He can now perform it automatically without thinking about it, which is why he can do just as well when he’s blindfolded as he can when he can see what he’s doing.

In the video (link above), 10-year-old Nabor faces off against David Eagleman mano-a-mano, as it were, and hands him a resounding defeat. Eagleman said of the contest that he wasn’t even an eighth of the way through his routine when Nabor finished. During the competition, both were fitted with skull caps to monitor electrical activity in their brains. Instead of burning more energy to complete his complex cup-stacking routine speedily and flawlessly, Nabor’s brain used considerably less energy than Eagleman’s brain used to perform the routine much more slowly. In fact, Eagleman described Nabor’s brain as serene.

Eagleman’s brain burned more energy because he had to think about what he was doing and conscious thought burns more energy than zombie systems and alien subroutines burn.

When a professional baseball player connects his bat with a pitch that is traveling too fast for his conscious mind to track, he is leveraging a well-honed alien subroutine.

Your brain rewrites itself based on the things you repeatedly practice, such has hitting a ball with a bat, driving, or swimming. Some of those things could be classified as skills while others might better be classified as habits. Whether they are skills or habits, once they become “etched into the circuitry of the brain,” you lose conscious control over them. Your brain doesn’t particularly care what skills or habits (good or bad) are turned into zombie systems. The purpose of the process, as Eagleman says, is to free up resources, allowing the conscious you to attend to and absorb other tasks.

Because you lose conscious control of zombie systems and they run automatically, it’s quite difficult to change them—to put it mildly.

Learning to Ride the Backwards Bicycle

Engineer Destin Sandlin, creator of the website Smarter Every Day, was challenged to ride a bicycle that had been modified so that when you turn the handlebars to the right, the wheel turns left, and when you turn the handlebars to the left, the wheel turns right. Watch him try—and fail—to ride the bike, and then offer to pay other people if they are able to ride the bike 10 feet.

“Once you have a rigid way of thinking,” Sandlin says, “you cannot change that, even if you want to.” Riding a bicycle, for most of us, is a hard-wired zombie system. Since we don’t have conscious control over the bicycle-riding algorithm, knowing that the bicycle has been altered has no effect on our ability to modify the algorithm—at least not right away.

It took Sandlin eight months of regular practice to learn how to ride the backwards bicycle. However, he noticed that the old pathway was still there and minor distractions, such as a cell phone ringing, could cause his brain to “jump back on the old road it was more familiar with.”

Sandlin’s young son, on the other hand, who had been riding a bicycle for three years, required only two weeks to get the hang of the modified bicycle.

When Sandlin attempted to ride a normal bicycle again after having more or less mastered the backwards bicycle, he couldn’t do it at first. But after about 20 minutes, his brain slipped back into gear, and he was able to remain upright. Think about that when you’re struggling with changing a habit you’ve had for years or maybe even decades. It takes a great deal of repetition and persistence to master a replacement behavior but very little provocation to revert back to the old path.

Consciousness on the Sidelines

Having the knowledge, information, or even will to change your behavior are all System 2 (conscious) processes. They’re certainly useful and even desirable. But a habit is a System 1 (unconscious) zombie system that is not immediately responsive to your conscious intentions or attentions.

In fact, those System 2 processes can sometimes get in the way. Eagleman says:

Not only do we run alien subroutines; we also justify them. We have ways of retrospectively telling stories about our actions as though the actions were always our idea. As an example…I mentioned that thoughts come to us and we take credit for them (“I just had a great idea!), even though our brains have been chewing on a given problem for a long time and eventually served up the final product. We are constantly fabricating and telling stories about the alien processes running under the hood.

Essentially we come up with conscious explanations for unconscious systems we have no access to. When we think we understand something, but we don’t, we’re likely to also think we know what to do about it. But we don’t.

If your brain is running an alien subroutine or a zombie system you don’t want it to run, you have to make like Destin Sandlin and practice the new routine over and over and over again. And you have to be prepared to have your brain “correct” you back to your old behavior at the least provocation.

When that happens, it’s far more productive to get back up on the horse—or bicycle—than it is to create a story about it.

Part of the series A-Z: An Alphabet of Change.

O Is for Obstacles


An obstacle is something that blocks your path or prevents or hinders your progress. If there’s one thing that’s certain in life, it’s that things won’t always go the way you want them to or according to your plan. Like many people, you may think that’s always a bad thing. But obstacles and setbacks are part of life. They don’t mean anything in and of themselves. That doesn’t mean they don’t have an effect on you, but you’re the one who imbues them with meaning.

Obstacles can be external or internal. The external ones can range from a traffic delay on your way to an important meeting to an uncooperative family member or co-worker to serious illness or a natural disaster. My temperament is such that it’s easy for me to experience life itself as one giant obstacle. In Enneagram terms, I resist impact from the environment and there’s a lot of environment to go around. So I have considerable experience coming to terms with the nature of obstacles, including the fact that my attitude is not always helpful. Maybe you can relate.

A few other ways you can be your own biggest obstacle are by:

  • failing to get all the information or acting on unverified assumptions
  • dropping the ball (not following through on something)
  • communicating or behaving in a manner that results in an undesirable outcome
  • having unrealistic expectations of yourself and others

Of course the major obstacle, at least when it comes to behavior change, is your own brain, which is intent on maintaining the status quo. If you fail to recognize this particular obstacle, you’re in for a rougher ride than you need to be as you try to figure out why you keep doing what you’re doing when what you want to do is something entirely different.

One Interesting Thing about Obstacles

Imagine reading a story or watching a movie in which the protagonist faced no obstacles. Would you read a novel or enjoy a movie like that? People who write for a living are betting you wouldn’t. A rule of thumb for writers is there should be some element of conflict on every page. The more conflict, the better. The more obstacles the characters have to deal with, the better.

When something goes wrong in your life, just yell: “Plot twist!” and move on. —Anonymous

Conflict and obstacles make things interesting because they’re unexpected. They also force you out of your comfort zone. You can be proceeding through life on autopilot (System 1), driving along a familiar route, when suddenly you notice a mudslide has closed the road ahead. System 1 calls on System 2: What should we do now? If what’s on the other side of that mudslide is something you really want or someplace you really want to go, you’ll try to figure out another way to get there. Which brings us to…

One Useful Thing about Obstacles

I’m not going to claim obstacles are opportunities or tell you they’re gifts or blessings in disguise. You can interpret them that way if you like, but obstacles are just obstacles: things that get in the way of what you want to do or where you want to go. I’m also not going to insist that obstacles (or overcoming obstacles) make you stronger or tougher because maybe they will and maybe they won’t.

There is one significant benefit obstacles can provide, however, although not everyone benefits equally. Experiencing an obstacle can help you think globally—step back and see the bigger picture—not just about the obstacle you’re facing but in regard to other unrelated situations or unrelated tasks. As a result, you’re more likely to come up with creative solutions in a variety of different settings.

The basic cognitive processes elicited by obstacles help people to find more creative means towards their goals. —Janina Marguc, University of Amsterdam

But there are two caveats.

First, in order to reap this benefit, you have to be motivated to follow through with what you’re doing. If you’re not already motivated, you’ll be more likely to see an obstacle as an excuse for slacking off or giving up than as a spur to action or invention.

Second, you’re more likely to think globally as a result of encountering an obstacle if you have what is referred to as low volatility. Art Markman, Ph.D., writing in Psychology Today says:

People who are not that volatile tend to engage with a task and stick with it even when it gets difficult. Those people who are highly volatile tend to skip from task to task to task.

For the latter group, encountering an obstacle does not make them more likely to think globally. That makes sense, given that volatile means excitable, unpredictable, or irresolute. If you’re highly volatile, you prefer to move on rather than stick around feeling uncomfortable or temporarily discouraged.

But even if you tend toward high volatility, you can make it more likely you’ll achieve a goal or create or change a habit if you do the legwork up front to make sure you really want what you’re going after—that your desired outcome is extremely desirable. The more motivated you are, the less likely you’ll be to give up in the face of an obstacle.

The most practical and realistic approach to take when you want to achieve something is to assume the path ahead won’t be a smooth, straight line. Then you can figure out ahead of time how to respond to the twists, turns, and bumps you’re bound to encounter.

If you get as many of your ducks in a row as you can, you’ll be in a better position to deal with the obstacles you will inevitably encounter. And if you encounter one that’s an actual deal-breaker, it will be easier for you to identify it as such, stop beating your head against that particular boulder, and scrap your plan without guilt or regret. That’s worth a little upfront effort, isn’t it?

Part of the series A-Z: An Alphabet of Change.

K Is for Know-How

Knowledge and know-how have a lot in common, but they’re not the same thing. You can read a book, watch a DVD, or listen to a lecture and gain knowledge—maybe even a lot—but that knowledge is theoretical until you actually apply it. Memorizing a camera’s instruction manual, for example, won’t give you the know-how to use your camera effectively, easily, or creatively in a wide range of situations. To be able to do that, you need hands-on experience and practice—the more practice, the better.

You probably know how to do a lot of things you didn’t always know how to do.

  • Drive a car
  • Operate a computer
  • Search the internet
  • Use a smartphone
  • Purchase airline reservations and board a plane
  • Order food in a restaurant
  • Speak in front of a group
  • Assemble furniture using an Allen wrench
  • Knit a scarf

Learning how to do all those things—at least to do them well, with confidence, or in some cases, safely—involves actually doing them, not just knowing what to do or how to do it. Drivers’ education, when I took it, included both classroom learning and operating a vehicle with an instructor in the passenger seat. A few of my classmates who demonstrated great proficiency in the classroom didn’t do so well on the road. I still remember one of a series of near-misses with Susan N. behind the wheel. Our instructor frantically gestured for her to pull the car over and park it, after which he got out and strode up and down the sidewalk for several minutes, repeatedly rubbing his hands over his face.

And if you think you can sit right down and knit a scarf using, say, the garter stitch (a relatively easy knitting project), after having watched someone else do it or reading the pattern instructions, you’re in for a surprise when you try manipulating the yarn and needles for the first time.

Getting to Carnegie Hall

We expect that in learning how to do something that involves a procedure, a sequence, or the use of tools or equipment we will need to practice doing it in order to master the activity. In fact, we expect to spend the majority of our learning time not on theory, but on practice.

But we don’t approach changing our behavior the same way. We seem to think that having knowledge or information is enough—or more accurately, should be enough. When it turns out not to be, we don’t rethink our approach or beliefs. We decide there’s something wrong, either with the knowledge and information or with us.

I think one of the reasons for this is that we don’t recognize that the same mechanism of action is involved in almost all behavior change. So putting the practice time in will eventually pay off not just in one area, but in many areas. It’s similar to learning how to play the piano. Mastering playing the piano doesn’t just give you the ability to play one song or one type of music. Yes, playing improvisational jazz is different from playing classical sonatas, but the underlying mechanism of action is the same. The piano skills you develop are transferable.

Theory and Practice

Mastering the art and science of change involves both theory and practice, too. In the realm of theory, you need to understand some things about the brain, including:

  • The difference between System 1 (the unconscious) and System 2 (consciousness)
  • Why your brain keeps “correcting” you back to your old way of doing things
  • How your brain creates habits, with or without your participation

You also need to know how to make use of the way your brain is wired or how to work around it when you need to. That involves developing various tools, including:

  • Setting goals and following through on them
  • Keeping your attention focused on your intentions
  • Making use of rewards to activate memory and learning circuits

That’s a lot of information to absorb. It’s a lot of knowledge to process. But it’s not enough.

Even if you know everything there is to know about how the brain works in regard to behavior, and even if you understand the reasons for and the absolute best ways to use goals, habits, intentions, and rewards, if you don’t engage in regular and deliberate practice, you won’t be able to master the art and science of change.

When clients begin my Goals, Habits & Intentions course, I always tell them the most valuable thing they’ll get from the course is coming face-to-face with how they get in their own way. If you really want to master behavior change, you need to develop the kind of self-awareness you can only get when you’re in the midst of trying to change something. For example:

  • How do you respond to feedback?
  • What do you do when faced with obstacles, delays, and distractions?
  • What beliefs and assumptions do you have about yourself and the way the world works that you don’t know you have?

Regular and deliberate practice is the only way to fully grasp the tools and make them your own. Regular and deliberate practice combined with knowledge and information helps you develop the know-how to master making the changes you want to make in your life and to help others do the same.

Change is not easy. It takes a lot longer than you think it will or than you want it to. It can be messy and discouraging, too. In his book Mastery, George Leonard says:

To take the master’s journey, you have to practice diligently, striving to hone your skills, to attain new levels of competence. But while doing so—and this is the inexorable fact of the journey—you also have to be willing to spend most of your time on a plateau, to keep practicing even when you seem to be getting nowhere.

That’s the challenge. But once you really get the hang of it—once you develop the know-how—you’ll have it for the rest of your life.

Part of the series A-Z: An Alphabet of Change.