Experiments vs Failures

When you have exhausted all possibilities, remember this: You haven’t.

-Thomas Edison


Over and over I hear about the problems people have with failure. It seems we are risk-averse and do not want to fail.

I often talk to teens about this issue. Some of our highest flying teens seem particularly risk averse. This is often something blamed on their generation, but I am not sure this is a generational thing. If anything, I think their parents’ generation (my generation, Gen X) is the one who has pointed out how terrible it is for them to fail. But nonetheless, here is what we talk about.

I point out that the best and brightest in any field tend to take on the toughest problems. These are either new problems that nobody has solved yet or age old problems that resist obvious (and not so obvious) solutions. There is great unknown inherent in these issues, and attempts to solve them are frequently met with what can be viewed as failure.

However, the best and brightest do not necessarily see attempts to solve these problems as failures. They see it as experimenting. In order to solve problems, we may need to systematically form opinions and test them. At the beginning, many options appear to be equally good, so choosing one and trying it is a good place to start. If that one attempt out of many good looking options works, you were fortunate. Otherwise, the experiment will not get the results you hoped for, and could be considered a failure.

Here is the thing to remember. An experiment is never a failure (although some are conducted poorly). Results are always a perfect reflection of how the experiment was conducted, and all results have the potential to be informative. When tempted to use the word failure, 99 times out of 100 there is a better term.

Most times, when someone looks like a huge success to us, we simply have not been privy to all the experimenting they’ve performed in the dark before bringing their triumph to the light of eyes. If something is important to you, exhaust your possibilities, and when you believe you have met failure, remember this: You haven’t.

Beyond Our Wildest Dreams


The invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common.”

– Ralph Waldo Emerson


We often get mesmerized by the suggestion that we need a grand vision. That is why I always find it fascinating to hear that so many high achievers had no grand vision, or at least they did not have the grand vision of the particular success they achieved.

Tom Brady was the latest person I heard to suggest such a thing. In the pregame segment he taped with Terry Bradshaw, Brady told Bradshaw, “I never imagined myself in this situation,” meaning playing in his 7th Super Bowl with a chance to win 5.

We often hear that we need to imagine it before we achieve it, but in reality, being excellent always rests with doing one’s best in the present moment, after all, it’s the only moment we ever live in. Now, to be sure, some of that excellence in the present is direct toward planning, but it always strikes me unusual, and quite wonderful actually, when someone exclaims that their life exceeded their wildest dreams.

I am not suggesting that imagery, planning, and/or goal setting are bad. That’s not at all my point. Planning has a purpose, but even though planning is about the future, it’s an act that must be done – like all others – in the moment. Thus, even planning must be performed excellently in the moment.

If one is to do rather than just dream, the planning must turn to action, and when taking action, so much big excellence is in the tiny details. Sometimes the grandest way to imagine something is to see the ordinary with extraordinary detail, focus, and care. Grand visions without action never materialize, but actions without a grand vision can still build a masterpiece one little detail at a time.

I think this is why Brady was so composed when Super Bowl LI started so poorly for the Patriots. He realizes that his vision of what he wants need not prevent him from dealing effectively with what is. He understands that he has built a masterpiece one little detail at a time, so that is how he took to dismantling the large deficit. Like with his entire career, perhaps in focusing on the tiny details he could influence, he exceeded what he could have accomplished had he tried to take in the entire bigger picture.

There is nothing wrong with a grand vision, but there is also nothing wrong with a limited or seemingly small vision with extraordinary focus on the little things that make the big things possible. As Emerson wrote, “The invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common.” Sometimes this wisdom leads us to places beyond our wildest dreams.

The Goal is Internal and Within Reach

Piggybacking on the last two day’s posts, which discussed being sad about death because we love life and being present in the moment to an internal goal that is within reach, I want to emphasize the importance of living in the moment. Robert Pirsig’s quote (read yesterdays post or see the bottom of this post for the quote) is an important reminder to me that it is possible to have an internal goal that I am capable of reaching, and that is really all I need to live in the moment. Understanding that my thoughts and feelings are not controlled by outside circumstances has helped me live in the moment much more often the past year and a half.

Living in the moment is a major theme of what I call making the play by being aware, awake, and alive. I understand that nothing outside me has the power to create a certain thought or feeling. Sure, sometime it seems that way, but I always remember that I am free from both external and internal control. This understanding creates tremendous freedom which I can often use to direct my attention toward the potential greatness of this moment. If I am making the play, I seize that greatness, even if it is a very small gesture.

While the play may be external, I have begun to truly understand that my ultimate goal is internal and within reach: Attempt to make plays as often as possible, and when I fail, understand that every moment is pregnant with new possibilities for making more plays.

I realize a beautiful experience of the world and happiness are available every second of every day. I know that I do not need a certain net worth, number of followers, or trophies on the shelf. I may not always have happiness, and that is fine and normal, but I certainly try to remember that happiness only resides inside me.

With that happiness, I can project it into the world no matter what is here in front of me at the moment. Obviously, some things – like the death I wrote about yesterday – occur, and my thoughts about those things preclude me from being happy for a time. That’s the way it is. It doesn’t mean that I am beholden to outside circumstances, and it doesn’t mean I am broken because I can’t power-of-positive-thinking my way out of a bad feeling at the moment. It just means I care for people, understand the fleeting nature of life, and am profoundly affected about it for the time being. I know it won’t last even if it might reoccur to me.

I hope you enjoy it as much as I have, and if you are so moved, I hope it points in an important direction. I would love to hear your thoughts. As always, thanks for reading and sharing.


To the untrained eye ego-climbing and selfless climbing may appear identical. Both kinds of climbers place one foot in front of the other. Both breathe in and out at the same rate. Both stop when tired. Both go forward when rested. But what a difference! The ego-climber is like an instrument that’s out of adjustment. He puts his foot down an instant too soon or too late. He’s likely to miss a beautiful passage of sunlight through the trees. He goes on when the sloppiness of his step shows he’s tired. He rests at odd times. He looks up the trail trying to see what’s ahead even when he knows what’s ahead because he just looked a second before. He goes too fast or too slow for the conditions and when he talks his talk is forever about somewhere else, something else. He’s here but he’s not here. He rejects the here, he’s unhappy with it, wants to be farther up the trail but when he gets there will be just as unhappy because then it will be here. What he’s looking for, what he wants, is all around him, but he doesn’t want that because it is all around him. Every step’s an effort, both physically and spiritually, because he imagines his goal to be external and distant.

By Robert M. Pirsig from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Open Expectations

In yesterday’s post about grit, I mentioned that a way to increase grit is to be aware that the conditions/situations of the world have no control over you. One great way to do this is to remind yourself that outcomes have no control over you. This is true whether outcomes are positive or negative. To point yourself in this direction, see if you can have open expectations.

Open expectations are neither high goals nor low goals. In a way, they are a sort of anti-goal that should help create a mindset for all types of possibilities.

Open expectations set no ceiling nor floor for what can happen. It’s an expectation that, “Anything can happen, and I can handle it all.”

With open expectations, I have found in myself and my clients the following:

  • No fear or anxiety when high performance occurs. There is no glass ceiling. Performance can soar without the restriction of high expectations. In essence, performance can surpass one’s wildest dreams.
  • An opponent playing well doesn’t phase us because we know it has no bearing on our own mindset and emotions. Their playing well was within our expectations all along.
  • The unexpected does not phase us. We were completely open to anything and everything happening. However, the more possibility we can imagine, the more we can prepare for, and the smaller the unexpected world becomes.
  • We are filled with supreme confidence that comes from an understanding that we are not our outcomes nor our performances. These are temporary and fleeting, and we are greater than that. We always have an opportunity to make new plays. We can handle anything that comes our way.

When I start explaining this idea, some people jump to the conclusion that I am suggesting abandoning high expectations or goals of any type. This is not the case.

If you want to set goals or have expectations, do it. After all, I’m a proponent that we don’t control our thinking (though I do believe we influence it, thinking is sort of like paddling a canoe in a river, we have some influence, but so does the river, which limits and influences us to some extent), so how could I suggest you abandon a goal that has occurred to you. It may not be possible for you to unsee the goal once it is clear in your mind. I might just suggest that you not become so attached to the goal that you ascribe it some magical power to make you happy. The world doesn’t work this way, so I like to point in the direction of clarity.

Also, understand that having high expectations does not mean you will reach them, just as having doubts doesn’t mean you won’t reach them. Having doubts and high expectations are states of mind, not objective indicators about what is possible. Understand that your thoughts create your experience of the world and all the possibilities it entails. If you want to have high expectations and find it possible to imagine, by all means, do it. I would simply point out two other things: 1) It might also help to have open expectations about what could be possible in both a negative and positive direction. 2) Both doubts and confidence are normal and temporary. If you like confidence, try to steer in that direction when you can.

I hope you give open expectations a try. I hope you find, as I have, that it is a tremendous mindset for allowing our inner fire to burn brightly.