Failing: one key to success

My 20-year-old nephew is learning to be a watch-maker. He loves to master the intricate mechanisms, and he’s great at telling how each watch differs from each other, what the minuscule bits do and don’t, and why they need replacing or not.

I’m only mildly interested, but my husband loves watches, so he’s been delighted. Once my nephew felt confident enough, he trusted him with a few mechanical watches that needed attention.

Last week the watches were ready, and we went to pick them up. My nephew was diligent and proud, in showing my husband what he had been doing – he had been sending pictures and messages for every stage of the work as well – so it all ended with mutual satisfaction.

But by the time we came home, the second hand had fallen off inside one of the watches. I felt embarrassed in my nephew’s place, and started making excuses. ‘He’s only an apprentice, remember.’

My husband was remarkably cool about it. He contacted my nephew, who immediately agreed to come over and repair it. That happened yesterday. As he went about, he explained all the things that can go wrong, and how he checks them step by step. 

 After he fixed the problem, we chatted. He told me how his mentor at school made him take apart one watch and put it back together a hundred times until he had memorised every single part, action and sequence of the process. It drove him mad.

‘Why?’ he said he asked her.

‘So that you will never fail,’ she responded.

‘But this is just one watch, and there are thousands of different watches,’ he exclaimed. ‘What’s the point?’

‘Just so you won’t fail,’ she repeated.

‘But I learn from failing,’ he said.

‘You must never fail,’ she insisted.

I smiled. It was a great lesson, I thought, in how women and men tend to approach the concept of failing differently. It is a known phenomenon that women often prefer not to try, or ask questions than to risk getting something wrong. Some studies claim this is because they fear being perceived as dumb. If a person doesn’t hold herself in very high esteem already that would reinforce her sense of low self-worth. Rather than having to face that feeling, she avoids taking action. Which also means she misses out on the potential that she does get it right, and feels good about herself. But, better safe than sorry.  

Later that evening, the second hand jammed against the glass, stopping the watch. My nephew seemed unfazed by it. ‘I’ll take it with me, fix it and test it for a while before I give it back,’ he reassured my husband. To me: ‘I love it when something doesn’t work, and I can find out what’s wrong, and then figure out what to do about it.’

What a great mindset to have. This is just one way to stop holding back and eliminate your fear of failure: embrace the possibility that things you do may go wrong, and feel empowered by your ability to fix them.  #failforward #newmindset 


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