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What I Learned This Week: The Paradox of Failure When It's Not an Option

09/16/2013 12:50 EDT | Updated 11/15/2013 05:12 EST

Not long ago, I agreed to speak at a conference for a friend of mine, she being VP marketing of a large Canadian food corporation. Prior to my discourse, she made an impassioned plea to her minions -- marketing and sales execs gathered from all across the country -- in which she outlined the importance of her company's upcoming missive. As a rallying cry to close it off, she took a deep breath and slowly said: "Failure is NOT an option."

This put me in an awkward place, as my speech was about doing things differently and taking risks. I opened it with one, by saying:

"I hate to start this off by contradicting my friend and your boss, but to tell you the truth, failure is ALWAYS an option. No matter what anyone says. Knowing it exists, and pretending it doesn't a sign of psychosis, not bravery."

That got me a lot of titters and a few laughs, but it's reality. What makes a great, heroic line in a movie (Ed Harris grits it out playing NASA's Gene Kranz in the film Apollo 13) may not be the best advice to give people going into battle, be it business or otherwise.

Here's why.

If you put the fear, or try to eliminate the possibility, of failure in people embarking on a challenge, they will simply play it safe and do their damndest NOT to fail. They will walk on eggshells, minimize risks and go for the tried-and-true all in an effort to ensure their success.

But by playing NOT to lose instead of passionately playing to win, they actually BOOST their chance of failure. They will miss the ostentatious by going for the obvious. They will go for the bunt single instead of swinging for the fences. They will ignore the off-the-beaten paths by concentrating on the paved highway.

So here's the paradox, and this week's lesson:

BY MINIMIZING THE POSSIBILITY OF FAILURE, YOU ACTUALLY INCREASE ITS CHANCES.

Or, put another way...

IF YOU PLAY NOT TO LOSE, THEN YOU WILL NEVER EVER REALLY WIN.

There are a zillion relevant quotes about this paradoxical dilemma, but I've chosen the most recent one I could find, from Peter Budaj, the astute and personable back-up goalie of the Montreal Canadiens. In discussing the NHL's dreaded boredom-inducing "trap" defensive system, and it's arcane rule of awarding the losing team a point in an overtime loss, he said:

Sometimes I wish they'd make some teams play for a win and not play not to lose (italics mine). That's a big difference; you're sitting back and waiting for the opponent to make a mistake, not trying to create anything yourself."

See the difference? You're not creating chances, you're depending on someone else's loss to be your gain. Again, put another way, if you're sitting back on your heels, it's actually easier to fall on your ass.

Some of the great stories in the history of sports, business, war, politics and showbiz are results of sure bets, easy wins and "can't lose" opportunities stunningly swinging the other way. You may all be too young to remember "Dewey Defeats Truman," but a quick click here and you will understand the epitome of what we used to call "Counting Your Chickens Before They're Hatched."

And on the other hand, even BETTER stories have been written on shocking victories, succeeding against all odds, and unexpected results.

The type that comes knowing that you could fail, but you just don't care.

After all, it's ONLY an option...