The Antidote to Wealth

Fear of Failure

I always knew I was going to be rich. I don't think I ever doubted it for a minute.

-Warren Buffett

Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.

-Teddy Roosevelt

I recently had a life changing experience that forced me to rethink who I am and where I am in my life.

I was attending a class at Stanford, called Decision Analysis. The professor was your typical, dry intellectual professorial type. "Creaky old dude" as my teenager would say. But once he got through the boring course introduction, he did something shocking. Before we went on break, he asked each student to fill out a bid for a chance to win an $800 gold American Eagle coin . He spent a good 15 minutes explaining the rules. Whoever won the bid would pay that amount of money to flip a coin and call it. If he called it correctly, he would walk out of class with the gold coin. If he did not, he would have paid for the privilege to become the class case study. At first, we though he was joking. Then the class assistant walked in with a credit card reader and the mood of the whole class changed as we realized this was for real! He was talking about winning an $800 gold coin and anyone could walk to the front of the class and take a good look at the coin before the bidding began.

Before you read on, I ask you to think for just a moment what you would do in this situation. The answer may surprise you.

So how did a Stanford classroom full of executives, directors, Marine Corporals, and top salesmen react?

About 5 people didn't take the whole thing seriously and bid a token amount, just a few dollars, to "play along."

Most people took it rather seriously and bid between $50 and $100.

But a few people decided they were not going to walk away without that coin in their pocket. Two people bid almost $400.

That was the life-changing moment for me, the flash of inspiration that was fleshed out and built upon by the next hour's lecture. I have spent many hours pondering over what is the difference between someone who is wildly successful in life and someone who is not. I asked myself, is it talent, intelligence, beauty, wit, luck or any of a number of other things we commonly equate with success? Suddenly, I understood what Churchill meant when he said Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.

The biggest difference between successful people and average people is their willingness to risk failure.

And it hurt a bit to realize that the reason my career had hit a dead end was because I'd become too frightened of failure to take the risks that had always been such a normal part of my life. Instead of 20% to 50% annual salary increases that had been normal, I was now getting a whopping 2.5 to 4% and being told by my manager that I lacked empathy and was lucky to get that much.

Now, I had very good reasons for having become risk averse. Out of the blue in 2005 I became very ill. In 2006 I had surgery and in 2007 I was rear-ended by a lady in an SUV going 50 mph. Given the health set-backs I'd experienced, just going to work each day and having an unbroken income for 3 years was a tremendous accomplishment. But there was more to it than that.

What is it worth to you for a 50-50 chance of winning $800? Is it worth a postage stamp? The price of a lottery ticket? A few hundred dollars? Or 20 hours of your time? To achieve great things, one must dare greatly and risk failure. Don't waste time crying over the failures. You have to learn from them, and keep moving forward. There is no "great man" that you can point to who has no failures in his past. And that was the part I had forgotten. I had begun to think of myself as a failure, because I had taken a few gambles that didn't pay off. I'd gone toe-to-toe with a very powerful VP that moved to COO and then to President of another division. My goal was to take the Directorship of my group. Her goal was to fire me. I failed, but so did she. I had reached for the gold ring, but wound up almost falling off the carousel instead. I was lucky and had a few good friends and a very supportive family who counseled and mentored me, and continued to believe in me while I couldn't believe in myself. And I have guided my career back on track. I'm once again working with executive leadership teams on multi-million dollar projects, and earning the respect of my coworkers. And I know next year is going to be a even better year.

I encourage you to know yourself, understand what risks you are willing to take, and learn the difference between risks and gambles. Invest in yourself and most importantly, believe in yourself. You can accomplish great things in life if you stay focused and learn to roll with the punches. Always remember that failure is temporary as long as you don't let it stop you in your tracks.

Oh, in case you were wondering. My classmate lost the toss, so he did NOT go home with an $800 goldpiece. But given who he is, he learned far more about himself than the $400 might have bought him otherwise. He left a just a bit wiser.