By J. Gerald Suarez
Special to The Washington Post
— Do you find yourself thinking about avoiding failure, or do you consistently think about achieving success? The difference between these two perspectives can fundamentally influence your career. Focusing your thinking on dodging failure can lead to devastating outcomes.
In 1978, I watched Karl Wallenda on live TV as he attempted to walk between two hotels on a wire stretched 121 feet above the pavement in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Karl was the founder of The Great Wallendas, an internationally recognized daredevil circus act famous for performing death-defying stunts without a safety net. At age 73 and with winds exceeding 30 miles per hour, Wallenda stepped out to what was soon to become his final act.
Prior to the walk, Wallenda was not his usual confident and positive self. In fact, Wallenda was so concerned about this performance that he had personally inspected all the ropes before the walk, something he had never done before, according to his family.
He climbed to the tower and after taking a few steps Wallenda seemed tentative and appeared to be struggling with his balance. Everyone watching attributed this to the added suspense of the show. However, when he released the balancing pole and he tried to hold on to the cable with his hands, it soon became evident that he was in a precarious situation. Suddenly, he lost his grip on the wire and fell to his death. As everyone was mourning Wallenda, his family declared that the show would go on.
As the international press arrived to interview the Wallendas, his wife Helen recalled, "All Karl thought about for three straight months prior to it was falling. It was the first time he'd ever thought about that, and it seemed to me that he put all his energies into not falling rather than walking the tightrope successfully." It was a tragic moment, underscoring the difference between using our efforts to avoid failure and aiming them to attain success.
Focusing our thinking on what we want is a prerequisite to mobilizing our efforts to achievement-oriented activities. Eliminating or avoiding an undesirable condition — a job problem, negative interpersonal dynamics, or avoiding an error — does not ensure that we will attain what we desire.
We can't assume that if we eliminate what we do not want that our future will better by default. To succeed requires that we focus on success. (This was likely the strategy recently employed by Karl's great-grandson, Nik Wallenda, when he successfully walked a high-wire stretched across the Little Colorado River Gorge on June 23.)
Take a page from the younger Wallenda and focus on success as an important principle to apply to your career. We cannot walk our "tightrope" successfully if we are overly concerned with failure. Negative thoughts will push our mental and physical efforts in the wrong direction, and we will ultimately become defensive and self-protective. That, in turn, will adversely impact our capacity to take risks, make tough decisions, and be creative and innovative.
Good golfers understand this principle. They're in the middle of the fairway. They have the hole in sight. They consider the wind direction, but they ignore the water and sand hazards and the out-of-bounds markers. To acknowledge them is to allow negative thoughts to intrude on their image of where they want to be: on the green, close to the pin.
Suarez is professor of practice in systems thinking and design and a fellow of the Center for Leadership, Innovation and Change at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. He also works with professionals as an executive coach.