Indictment. It is what we guard against most often when we shrink back from the prospect of failure. There is something behind those imposing wooden doors marked “Risk”. Once opened, we expect to find a stern-faced jury of our peers exacting a verdict on who we are and where we’ve fallen short. The sentence, we believe, includes time in the stocks and a scarlet letter or cardboard sign affixed to our person.  Labels such as “Inadequate”, “Incompetent”, “Naïve”, “Impulsive”, or “Careless” will be scribbled or sewn as a makeshift billboard, announcing the assessment of those who chose to play it safe. 

       We spend an inordinate portion of our life attempting to avoid this day in court. Our energy is often focused on side-stepping assessment and rejection by others who are quick to claim our effort as fruitless. Opportunities are left un-seized and adventures abandoned in favor of a “night in”. The perspective of others is magnified beyond reason and we allow our worth to hang in the balance of the jury’s scales. Under our breath we remind ourselves to keep our head down, and don’t take any chances.

       But what if we imagined that room incorrectly. What if upon heaving open the massive mahogany doors expecting a courtroom, we find a classroom instead? In place of a jury box, co-conspirators sit around a table, master-minding another experiment and considering the new epiphanies brought forth by this unplanned outcome others have deemed “failure”. In the absence of a legal charge, verdict or sentence, there are questions, insights and celebration. And we notice that taking the place of a cardboard sign of shame, we inherit badges claiming “Curious”, “Innovative”, “Courageous” and “Adventurous”.

       Failure paralyzes us. It quickly teaches us to shrink our pool of possibilities and set up sentinels to guard against chance, risk and the possibility of missing the mark. In that effort, we aim only for the targets we have routinely hit before. Insuring we never go astray, we travel only the trails familiar to us. We rely on skills that were forged and honed in our earlier years and convince ourselves that the vulnerability that comes with learning is best left to the young. We don’t jump, wonder, ask, attempt, consider, or explore. Instead, we stand and parrot. We pivot slowly and make sure the ground around us is firm and familiar. There is never a chance worth taking, a task worth inviting or a question worthy of pursuit.

       Granted there is preparation involved in risk-taking. But, though one should journey forward as prepared as possible, eventually we must step into terra incognita. And even if we stumble upon our arrival, when we pay attention to the journey we will learn things never revealed to those who prefer to “stay within the lines”.  When we no longer guard against harm, we open ourselves to fertile ground for being better. Not simply producing something better, but ultimately becoming better at the producing.   Creating something of value, with less cost, through greater innovation, or more collaboratively. Who knows what can occur when we shift from merely attempting not to fail to trusting ourselves enough to take a chance? When we realize that failure is a classroom, and not a courtroom, we can push the doors wide open and step inside.