The $100,000 Flop

I've had this dream for years now: A major funder gives me big money to design an initiative that intentionally fails in full public view. I find myself sharing this dream with people when I visit their communities and talk with them about creating change and authentic hope. While in Binghamton, N.Y last week, I found myself talking about the dream again. For most my dream would be a nightmare; me, I want to make it happen. What I call the $100,000 Flop is based on an actual experience I had years ago working in a community that was down and out. Jobs were scarce, trust was fleeting, and there was lots of finger-pointing and placing of blame. Many people in the community felt so beaten up they were afraid to step forward and take any action. Like many of us, they were afraid they might fail.

At the time a major foundation was funding various change efforts in the community, including the Institute's work. But progress was slow. No matter how much the foundation funded, fear persisted. People didn't want to come out from their homes and leaders wouldn't work with one another. Simply giving out grants didn't seem to be the answer; money cannot easily erase something as insidious as fear. So I went to the foundation and asked for funding for an initiative that would intentionally fail in full public view. That's right, I wanted to fail.

After failing, my plan was to call a meeting in the center of town for people to talk about what had happened, and why the initiative had failed. I simply wanted people to see that we could talk openly, in public, about our failures, and that nothing would happen to us. We'd all come through the experience intact, no matter how hard or excruciating the conversation was. I wanted people to see that we could dissect the initiative and together could produce insights that would help all of us; that the conversation need not end in more finger-pointing and acrimony. I wanted to create an opportunity for people to see themselves in my failure; and really believe they would be okay.

Fear of failure is rampant in our lives. I see this fear rear its ugly head in so many communities, where it can have a crippling effect on people�s work and psyche. Sometimes we don't even realize the fear is within us, only to find ourselves stymied or stuck. The upshot is that we hide from taking risk, and the status quo wins out. So, just for moment, think about your fears and those of the people around you.

�         Where do you see a fear a failure?

�         Why do you think it exists?

�         What's holding people back?

Many of us choose not to step forward because we fear coming up short in our work or personal lives. We are afraid that others will judge us as less than competent, or less than able, or less than willing. There is often the sense that we must wait for someone else to give us permission to take action. Sound familiar?

But consider what happens when these dynamics are at play. Since none of us want to appear to be inactive or disinterested, we generate lists of activities in order to look busy, or we push hard at the edges of a challenge so as to seem engaged. We get entangled in various narratives that tell us that change is not possible, which we allow to close off opportunities to produce change and hope.

After all these years, I still haven't given up on my dream. In fact, my own hope now is that people in communities far and wide will try out my dream for themselves. My hope is that you will identify an initiative where you or others have failed, and will gather people around to talk openly about it. Stare straight at the failure so that you do not fear its power over you; wrestle with its implications so that you know there are choices to be made.

When I go to communities, people often want me to talk about success stories. I always try to tell a few. But as important as success stories are, our ability to recognize and overcome our fear of failure is just as critical. My dream these days is that in our efforts to move ahead, we will actually take on what is holding us back.


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