In work and in life, many people don’t take action because they’re afraid of failure and looking foolish. Jeff Tan, innovation solutions officer at Dentsu, argues that to drive meaningful progress, individuals need to ignore both their inner and outer critics.
When I graduated from university, I didn’t know what to do next. I had invested five grueling years in the most difficult engineering discipline – it was literally rocket science. We studied quantum physics, electromagnetism, satellite antenna design. I barely scraped through, and to this day still don’t really know what an electron is.
My friends all seemed to be landing well-paid starter jobs, and I was fearful they’d think I was not good enough. My parents wanted me to get a ‘proper job’ and make use of my degree. Yet a voice in my head kept telling me not to commit. Paralyzed by indecision, I booked a one-way flight to London with nothing but an oversized backpack and my scratched acoustic guitar.
It was the best decision I ever made.
I hustled around London and worked as an enthusiastic barman, a dodgy salesman, a malnutritioned coder... and then landed in advertising. If I had listened to my parents, I’d probably be a miserable engineer, and (trust me on this one) the world is a safer place now.
Today, I often get approached by people asking for advice for “this phase of their career.” First, I tell them thank you for making a 40-year-old feel older.
And then I say this: ignore your inner critic, ignore the outer critics, and just go for it. If something doesn’t work, you can always go back.
Too often we are scared to try things, both in life and in our careers. We are afraid to make decisions and invent our own future. We’re terrified of what people might think if we tried and failed.
Jeff Bezos described “two-way doors” as decisions that may at first seem life or death, but in actual fact are not. “Most decisions are changeable, reversible... If you’ve made a suboptimal Type 2 decision, you don’t have to live with the consequences for that long. You can reopen the door and go back through,” he said.
In Dentsu’s ID8 innovation sprints, we emphasize right from the moment people enter the room that this is a safe place. To be creative, we need to put aside the critic, the voice in our head that says, “this idea is crap. My boss won’t like it. It’s expensive. It’s too hard. I don’t like Jeff’s haircut. Someone has done this before,” or a million other reasons why we shouldn’t do something.
The result of this psychological safety is a place of experimentation. Common feedback after workshops is, “I haven’t felt this creative in years,” and, “I had license to try things without fear of judgement.”
In creative and innovation work, you need an environment that encourages lots of variance and a tolerance of failure. It requires a willingness to risk looking foolish. To experiment. To ignore what people might think. I call this mindset an ideas advocate.
In routine work, what most people do most of the time, the goal is less variance leading to less likelihood of failure. I don’t want my car mechanic to experiment with something he hasn’t done before, or an airline pilot to try a new method of landing called ‘toes on the joystick.’ In routine work, you want to be a devil’s advocate – to minimize risk, and to care deeply about what people say.
The problem occurs when this devil’s advocate mindset takes over our lives. We then instinctively refrain from taking risks and hide away from decisions. We take comfort with the status quo. We care too much about what people might think of us.
And that, my friends, is a tragedy. After all, the number one regret of the dying is, “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me."
So, I challenge you to ask yourself this honest question: how many decisions have you made (or not made) because you were worried what people thought?
Jeff Tan is innovation solutions officer at Dentsu International.