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.

P Is for Perseverance

A common explanation for the failure to accomplish something, reach a goal, or change a habit is a lack of willpower (or self-control). If only you had more willpower you could resist temptation, whatever form it might take: a piece of chocolate cake, binge-watching a favorite TV show, surfing the internet, adding unnecessary items to your wardrobe, or even just staying up late when you have an important meeting in the morning.

Willpower is trying very hard not to do something you want to do very much. —John Ortberg

It seems like common sense that if you had the ability to say no in the face of temptation, you wouldn’t be in whatever pickle you might be in.

And there’s a bit of truth underlying that belief. Willpower can be both useful and powerful. And yes, some people appear to have more willpower, at least in some situations, than other people. But willpower is an unreliable resource that can be easily exhausted. You can benefit from developing more of it, but it’s not the most effective tool in the behavior-change box.

Don’t Crash and Burn

When you’re bursting with willpower, you feel like you’re faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. It feels great in the moment, but the moment doesn’t last. You may find yourself burning out before you get very far and end up abandoning your entire project. If at first you don’t succeed, you might decide it’s not meant to be or not worth the effort. Why bother? Just go with the flow. Or you might chalk it up to being weak, not wanting it enough, or lacking discipline.

It’s important to remember that the unconscious part of your brain has a bias for immediate gratification, which means you do, too. So after the initial burst of energy is gone it’s natural to find yourself distracted, derailed, or maybe even down for the count.

Worse, you may think what happened means something about you or your ability to follow through, which is kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy because multiple failed attempts actually train your brain to not take you seriously. That means your next attempt will be even harder to follow through with than the last one was.

If  you recall the story of The Tortoise and the Hare from Aesop’s Fables, you’ll remember the moral of that adventure was slow and steady wins the race.

You could compare the unconscious part of your brain, which is extremely fast and processes 11 million bits of information at a time, to the hare. The conscious part of your brain, which is responsible for exerting willpower and self-control among other things, is like the tortoise. It’s much slower and more deliberate, and it processes only 40 bits of information at a time.

Change the Default

Repetition and perseverance, not willpower and self-control, are the keys to changing your behavior and accomplishing your goals. Repetition means doing the same thing over and over again until it becomes your brain’s default response. Perseverance means steadily moving toward your desired outcome regardless of setbacks or obstacles, adjusting course as you go, and taking in at least some of the scenery. Just keep moving at a steady pace until you get where you want to go.

You don’t need to chastise yourself if you get off track. You don’t need to make up excuses. All you have to do is pick up where you left off and keep going.

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again. —William E. Hickson

It’s amazing how much time and mental effort we put into berating ourselves or trying to figure out what’s wrong with us when we don’t behave according to our own expectations when, much of the time, it’s simply due to the way we’re wired. It would be far more effective to recognize that until we convince it otherwise, our brain is going to keep on correcting us back to our previous path. So falling off the horse is just part of the process. The important thing is to get back up there.

Perseverance isn’t the same as dogged persistence. Sometimes there’s a good reason to stop attempting to do something or at least reassess. On the one hand, you’re more likely to persevere if you’re committed to what you’re trying to accomplish and clear about your desired outcome. On the other hand, that commitment and clarity can help you recognize you aren’t really headed where you want to go—or maybe that you’ve bitten off too big a chunk and need to scale back.

If you want to make any change to your status quo, you have to convince your brain to go along with the plan, and that won’t happen overnight. Getting your brain to accept a change in the status quo as the new normal, for example, requires changing your mental model. That’s probably going to take a lot more perseverance than you’d like or that you expect. You might be tempted to give up when the results don’t come quickly, but that would be a mistake.

Perseverance isn’t flashy or sexy or stylish. It’s often linked with discipline and endurance and sounds like something that’s good for you or that builds character. But it’s the key to creating sustained change. And if you develop the habit of perseverance, you can still use willpower but you won’t need to rely on it to power yourself through. That means your brain will be working for you, rather than against you.

In the realm of ideas everything depends on enthusiasm… in the real world all rests on perseverance. —Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

That’s why I call perseverance magic!

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

Increase Your Productivity by Eliminating Choice


The best way to ensure you will accomplish something is by taking choice out of the equation. As long as you think you have a choice about whether or not to do something, chances are good you won’t do it.

In an article at 99U titled How I Kept a 373-Day Productivity Streak Unbroken, Jamie Todd Rubin talks about his consecutive-day writing streak. He has an even longer streak, though. At the time he wrote the piece, he had written 516 out of the previous 518 days.

Rubin doesn’t talk about choice in his article, nor does he talk about habits. What he says is:

While I didn’t set out to form a routine, I eventually established one which has led to my most prolific year as a writer yet.

How did he do it? He used the principles of I.A.P.: Intention, Attention, and Perseverance.

He decided to challenge his assumptions about the circumstances he needed to have in order to write. He has a day job and a family that includes young children, so large blocks of uninterrupted time were not on the menu. But as a result of questioning his assumptions, he discovered he could get a significant amount of writing done (500 words) in a 20-minute block of time.

So he set an intention to write for at least 20 minutes every day. He knew that would be easier said than done, especially on days when his regular routine was disrupted.

I learned ways to hack my writing streak to cope with the disruptions and still write every day.

He keeps his attention on his intention by deciding ahead of time when to fit his writing in when his day isn’t going to follow a normal routine. On such days, he usually gets his writing done earlier in the day. He also cuts himself some slack while still keeping his routine in place.

In my normal routine, I can usually count on 40 minutes of writing time. On these off-days, I may only be able to count on 10 or 20 minutes.

Rubin has a plan in place for responding to the unexpected, which is the perseverance part of the process. We have to expect the unexpected to occur and figure out ahead of time how we’ll deal with it.

Sometimes, things happen that you can’t plan ahead for. Life gets in the way. I’ll go into a day thinking that it will be routine, and something comes up. Maybe I have to work late at the day job or maybe one of the kids is sick. Whatever it is, in these instances, I haven’t planned ahead and so I can’t necessarily get my writing done early in the day.

Rubin knows that he can usually count on squeezing 10 minutes of writing in, no matter what’s going on. So he makes that his goal instead of 20 or 40 minutes. As he says, the 250 words he can generate in 10 minutes is 250 words he wouldn’t have otherwise. He also keeps several writing projects going, so he can always find something he’s in the mood to work on.

Even so, he sometimes has a day where he doesn’t have an opportunity to do any writing whatsoever.

What happens when the streak inevitably comes to an end? Well, I just start anew. It’s happened once already. I previously had a 140-day streak, and then missed two days in the space of a week. But I got right back on the horse, and haven’t missed a day for 373 days.

Getting back on the horse is what perseverance is all about. It’s how we beat the “ah, screw it” that tempts us when things don’t go according to plan. It isn’t the two missed days that are important. It’s the other 518 days that really matter.

These three steps (intention, attention, perseverance) can be applied to any activity, not just to writing. If you decide ahead of time that you aren’t going to waste time each day choosing whether or not to do it, you’re far more likely to get it done.

Rubin concludes:

There is no question that my sales of both fiction and nonfiction pieces have increased since I started writing every day. Indeed, since the streak began, I’ve sold 18 pieces of fiction or nonfiction, triple that of any previous year.

Although he didn’t initially set out to create a daily writing habit, by setting an intention, finding a way to keep his attention focused on it, and persevering by planning for the unexpected and the failures, that’s exactly what Rubin has done. By taking choice out of the equation, he tripled his writing productivity.

How Do You Deal with Obstacles and Setbacks?

perseveranceIf there’s one sure bet we can all make, it’s that things won’t always go according to plan. Sometimes we drop the ball and other times external circumstances keep us from following through with our intentions.

Obstacles and setbacks are part of life. They don’t mean anything in and of themselves. We’re the ones who imbue them with meaning, such as using them as reasons for slacking off or giving up. If at first we don’t succeed, we might decide it’s just not worth the effort or that we don’t have what it takes. A more practical and realistic approach is to assume the path ahead won’t be a smooth, straight line and to figure out ahead of time how to respond to the twists, turns, and bumps we’re bound to encounter.

When it comes to our behavior, changing the brain’s programming isn’t easy. Acting deliberately and staying focused requires conscious attention, which is in short supply. When we try something new, we’re not going to be perfect right out of the gate—or ever. Perfection isn’t a worthy goal. It’s better to aim for doing better next time. Persistent effort will eventually persuade the brain that we really mean what we say.

But persevering doesn’t mean doggedly persisting. Sometimes there’s a good reason to stop attempting to do something. One of the benefits of paying attention is that we’re quicker to recognize when an intention needs to be adjusted or scrapped altogether. Sometimes we just need to pare it down and start with a baby step instead of a giant leap. Persevering means steadily moving toward the desired outcome regardless of setbacks or obstacles, adjusting course as you go.

Setbacks and obstacles are part of life. There’s no point bemoaning them, chastising ourselves, or making excuses. All we need to do is pick up where we left off and keep going. Most things in life aren’t a competition or a race. It doesn’t matter when we get there. All that matters is that we arrive.

Perseverance isn’t flashy or catchy or stylish. It’s often linked with discipline and endurance and sounds like something that’s good for you or that builds character. But perseverance is the key not only to reprogramming the brain’s autopilot, but to accomplishing anything of significance.

The Illusion of Choice

You always have a choice.

Isn’t that what everyone says? No matter what happens, you can choose how to respond. And if you want things to be different, well then just make different choices.

Making a different choice sounds so simple. And it’s appealing to believe you can do it if you really want to. But if you don’t make a different choice, does that mean you really don’t want to? Does it mean you lack self-control or will power? Does it mean you’re trying to sabotage yourself?

If you believe that you could make a different choice but don’t, why don’t you?

When we believe we could make a different choice, but we fail to do so, we’re forced to explain ourselves—at least to ourselves. So we get busy rationalizing, making excuses, or berating ourselves. It’s the start of a vicious cycle, one that can go on for years or even decades. Not only is this a waste of time, it’s also counterproductive to changing behavior.

The truth is that we don’t always have a choice. In fact, we rarely have a choice. We keep doing the same things we’ve always done because that’s how our brain is wired. It conserves precious energy by turning as many behaviors as possible into routines and habits. Once those routines and habits are in place, they’re extremely difficult to disrupt. When faced with a familiar situation, you and I and everyone else will likely as not do what we’ve always done in that situation, even if we want to make a different choice.

Minute by minute, second by second, the unconscious part of your brain is absorbing and processing an unbelievable amount of data, all but a small fraction of which you’re not consciously aware of. So at the moment you’re faced with that familiar situation, your unconscious is picking up on signals, making connections, and initiating the usual response long before you can consciously entertain the idea of doing something different. When it comes to routines and habits, consciousness is simply no match for the speed of the unconscious brain.

As long as you don’t recognize what’s going on, you’re up against an unseen enemy. The challenge is to use the brain’s labor-saving mechanisms instead of being used by them. That’s where intention comes in.

The time to decide how you want to respond in a familiar situation is not when you’re in that situation but when you have some distance from it and can think clearly about it. If you know what you’re up against, you can come up with a plan to outwit your unseen enemy and even turn it into an ally. The plan involves IAP:

    • Intention
    • Attention
    • Perseverance

The IAP process is based on the way the brain actually works.

(1) Plan ahead. Formulate a clear and specific intention.
(2) Don’t count on remembering. Come up with a way to keep your attention focused on your intention.
(3) Assume you won’t be perfect out of the gate. Your unconscious brain is stubborn and set in its ways. With perseverance, however, your desired response will become the automatic one.