My Dad learned how to water ski when he was very young. Every year for the past 60+ years, he’s made water skiing a part of his summer vacations. He has taught many family members and friends how to ski. One of his favorite sayings we heard repeatedly as we were growing up was “If you don’t fall, you’re not trying.” Considering how many times he went to the hospital due to his deep passion to get better at things, my sisters and I rephrased it as “If you don’t bleed, you’re not trying.

My dad, after thousands of falls.

I think we’ve all heard that you learn more from your mistakes than your successes. A piano player repeatedly playing a perfect “Happy Birthday” will never suddenly have the ability to play Chopin flawlessly. Our ability to do hard things only comes from failure. To play Chopin flawlessly, you must first play it terribly and learn from your mistakes.

That which does not kill us, makes us stronger — Nietzsche

Success is dangerous to learning

The early days of our professional careers are filled with mistakes and learning. “Can you explain that? I’m new here” is a pretty easy statement to make when you were hired 3 weeks ago. Those first weeks and months stretch our ability to perform, and we drastically improve our productivity as we enter each situation with an open mind.

Then we have a success or two. Someone compliments us on a presentation, or a particularly insightful bit of code. Success is awesome. It feels great. We love the confidence it gives us when we hit something out of the park. When we have success at work, it gives personal satisfaction. It gives potential career growth. It gives us security in our position. It also can be self-defeating.

I’ve seen this pattern a number of times. An employee gets comfortable with their current tasks. They confidently resolve similar tasks at a consistent rate over time. They know how to do these types of tasks. They are reliable at those tasks. However, they don’t pick up harder tasks. They don’t pick up new technology. They don’t try new ways of doing things. They want to play the exact same song, forever.

In interviews, I always give time for questions at the end. I’ve regularly had experienced engineers ask “Which coding language will I be using?” This might be related to their curiosity about which technology their area of Amazon is using. I’ve also had it asked with the added context of “I only know how to code in Java, so I want to make certain I’m going to be using Java in this job.

When you have been seduced by success into wanting only success from now on, you’ve tied an anchor around your own neck. Unless your job allows you to mechanically execute the exact same thing for the remainder of your career, growth and failure is required to succeed and thrive.

Fear kills growth

Making mistakes at work can be scary. It makes you feel vulnerable when you’d prefer to feel secure and confident. You have your pride to protect, and your social status to worry about.

  • Kindergartners have no problem asking a stupid question with their whole class watching. They are interested in learning, and haven’t started protecting their social standing.
  • Middle school students are notorious for being afraid to ask the wrong question, or look ignorant in front of their classmates. They are often focused on improving their social standing, less on their own personal growth. Kids can be silly like that.
  • In college, many of us grew out of our fear of looking stupid, because we had things we needed to learn. It was appropriate to ask questions when needed, because we were all there for the same purpose.

I’ve seen far too many professionals act as if their social standing is more important than learning. They act like middle school kids rather than serious students. They nod in agreement with decisions they don’t understand. They work to complete tasks without understanding the “Why” behind them. They dodge high visibility tasks in fear of how they might be perceived. They sit quietly when their management chain makes a decision they know is wrong. Their fear makes them short sighted, neutering their growth in favor of an imagined short term gain, or fear of loss.

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