Trying Not to Fail Is Not the Same As Striving for Success

There’s a definite difference between focusing on not failing versus striving for success.

When we focus on not failing, fear rents most of the space in our mind, and we see monsters in need of slaying everywhere we turn. We lose track of the original vision that propelled our actions, and the sheer act of working becomes at best a passionless exercise and at worst, drudgery.

Lousy Leaders Achieve “Not Failing” at a High Price:

Sadly, many leaders provide fuel for the “don’t fail” machine through their actions.

Show me a project team or functional group that exhibit all of the energy and passion of a collection of late-night television zombies, and I’ll guarantee there’s one or more dysfunctional and often micro-managing leaders at the source of this environmental problem.

Often, these leaders are motivated by some perverse view that success comes from not having their name associated with screwing up.  As a result, their every motivation is to make certain you and your co-workers achieve that objective.  While they may succeed in helping their teams navigate the issues of “not failing,” these leaders suck the life out of their teams in the process.

The Scarlet “F”

The “don’t fail” disease isn’t limited to the corporate world. I know small business owners and solopreneurs who have stepped into this gooey emotional muck during the past few years of economic unpleasantness. Instead of lessons-learned serving as fuel for problem solving and innovation, setbacks are worn for all to see as Scarlet F’s, where F stands for failure. Of course, what they forget is that no one can really see the Scarlet F’s unless they go out of their way to show them off.

Remember, You Own Your Attitude:

Striving not to fail is like walking up to take your turn at bat when the only thought running through your mind is, “don’t strike out.” The last two words, “strike out” are all that you remember as you flail wildly at everything thrown your way.

If you’re caught up in an environment where an evil leader holds court, remember that you still own your attitude. While it’s not easy to escape the fog of uncertainty and doubt created by these characters, it’s unlikely that their attempts at mind control can survive in a pitched battle against your own good attitude.

If you are your own boss and you feel weighted down and exposed by the Scarlet F’s you believe you are carrying around with you, it’s critical to rediscover the feelings of excitement, hope and opportunity that likely propelled you off on your own in the first place.

Rediscover or Reset Your Sense of Purpose:

Somewhere buried beneath the baggage and stress of the past few years, you had a sense of purpose that fueled your efforts. Whether it was providing for others or an intense desire to change the world, it’s important to scrape off the muck and recall that sense of greater mission.

Of course, we change over time, and what fueled us at one phase of life may not be so relevant at another stage. I know many people who have recharged their lives and their work as professionals by resetting their sense of purpose from a focus on success to an emphasis on making a difference for someone or some group.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

It’s easy to focus on failure or on the pursuit of not failing. It’s a lot more fun, it’s a lot healthier and it darned well is a lot more inspiring to rationalize our efforts and actions and combat our demons in the context of our bigger purpose.

Those who focus on success see victory around every corner.  They view obstacles and setbacks as minor challenges to be overcome on a longer journey towards something worthwhile.

No one can take away your sense of purpose, unless you let them. Focus your gaze clearly on the bigger picture and longer term, take a deep breath and then take the first step forward. You’ll quickly remember that steps taken with a purpose in mind are effortless.

Now, keep moving.

By |2016-10-22T17:11:40+00:00April 20th, 2011|Career, Leadership|11 Comments

About the Author:

Art Petty is a coach, speaker and workshop presenter focusing on helping professionals and organizations learn to survive and thrive in an era of change. When he is not speaking, Art serves senior executives, business owners and high potential professionals as a coach and strategy advisor. Additionally, Art’s books are widely used in leadership development programs. To learn more or discuss a challenge, contact Art.


  1. Brian Weber April 20, 2011 at 12:46 pm - Reply

    So true, Art. Trying to not fail only leads to the failure of accomplishing things worthwhile. We should all move forward with the goal of accomplishing the things that make life worth living, and understanding that there will be “failures” along the way. And that these “failures” are necessary and only temporary.

  2. Erik April 22, 2011 at 8:42 am - Reply

    We should not be afraid of failure. Failure offers us the chance to learn and improve from our mistakes. The key is double-loop learning. Once we understand that failure is part of the learning process, we can let the creative juices flow without being afraid of failing.

  3. Mike Navin April 26, 2011 at 6:12 am - Reply

    I’m with Erik. I think you need to realize that you’re going to fail. But, it’s not a full failure. You’ll learn from it. Take the good things that came out of what you did and run with those to help improve your product and/or service on the next go around..

    • Art Petty April 26, 2011 at 6:17 am - Reply

      No disagreement with you, Mike, or with Erik. This wasn’t the theme of the post, but your words/thoughts are good. -Art

  4. Jeff McMahon April 26, 2011 at 10:09 am - Reply

    Art – I can relate to this article. I ran a construction company that tried to change to survive and found myself very much in the fog of what the economy was doing to us. It divided the partners and I left. It took quite some time to gain clarity again. With my new venture, we are focused, excited and we attack our business everyday. We do have a sense of purpose and the future. We can see what is ahead. We also have business and that makes all things look sunny.

    • Art Petty April 26, 2011 at 10:26 am - Reply

      Jeff, thank you for sharing your first-hand experience! Priceless. Congratulations on your pursuit of success! -Art

  5. MartyLWard April 27, 2011 at 5:56 am - Reply

    Great article Art. It is a great reminder that the more we run from ourselves, the sooner we run into just what we were running away from. As we resist failure and run from it, there it is! I have found that it is in the aligning with that feeling of failure that we can transform it into empowered action. Failure has juicy information to share with us to guide us to our next best step. Feelings are just e-motion – energy in motion. They are like a compass telling us where we are off course. 180 degrees from feeling like a failure is feeling empowered, excited, energized. Ask failure what is here to teach you today. “I am here to remind you to take your time, to build your business one brick at a time, and stop rushing yourself. Slow down and take what you know and use it.” You might respond, “Thanks failure for showing up. I see that I was pushing to get success rather than take each piece and carefully work with it to build a sold foundation for a long term gain.” With that awareness, you can feel more at peace with the process and move forward feeling more confident that real success will come. Failure was your best friend telling you the truth to remind you of who you are and that you have everything you need to be a grand success. It is not that we are not enough. It is that we do not use the enough of who we are to live a satisfying life. Marty

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  7. MAPping Company Success May 2, 2011 at 2:18 am - Reply

    […] Petty presents Trying Not to Fail Is Not the Same As Striving for Success posted at Management […]

  8. Gil Pizano May 2, 2011 at 6:13 pm - Reply

    Art so true! You remind me of the Earl Nightingale recording called “The Strangest Secret” (it can be found on YouTube for those who haven’t heard it. It’s probably the worlds first motivational recording). The reason I state that you remind me of it is that the, according to Earl Nightingale, the strangest secret is truly strange because it’s not really a secret at all. What is that secret? It’s the interesting fact that we as human being “become what we think about”. In other words, we as human beings tend to gravitate our thoughts and in turn our actions towards whatever we focus our mind to. Similar to what you mention above. Focusing on “not failing” is not the same as “focusing on winning or succeeding”.

    My personal experience in sports and business showed me time and time again how people who always focused on the possible issues that can occur while trying to achieve something often had alot more of those issues manifest themselves for whatever reason when compared to people who played ignorant towards the possible issues and just focused solely on getting the achievement done. Thanks for taking the time to write this post Art! Cheers!

    • Art Petty May 2, 2011 at 9:19 pm - Reply

      Gil, thanks for reading and for taking the time to construct such a great comment. And I am honored to have my name even mentioned in the vicinity of Earl Nightingale! Best, -Art

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