BACK TO LISTING The importance of leaving your comfort zone and accepting the odd failure

The world is becoming increasingly – how shall I put this? – perfect. Have you noticed? When I go online, particularly on social media, I see perfect bodies, airbrushed photos, and lives that seem to have no blemishes whatsoever. I think this edited “reality” is dangerous, particularly for youngsters. It is all too easy to suppose that life is about looking and being perfect.

The truth, however, is that taking risks – and looking silly from time to time – is a terrific way to learn. I remember the first time I stood up in public to give a speech. I was a wreck. All those faces. My mouth dried completely and I fluffed a few lines. But I learned a huge amount from the experience and found techniques to cope better the next time around. Messing up isn’t the end; it is the beginning of a new phase. Today, I am not flawless at speaking in public, but I’m a lot better.

This is true of most things, isn’t it? Isn’t personal growth about stepping outside one’s comfort zone every now and again, and being willing to look a bit different? I remember interviewing Richard Branson a few months ago, and he argued that these “soft skills” are the biggest asset of any entrepreneur. “You have to be willing to fail if you are going to learn,” he said. “Challenges are not threats; they are opportunities.”

This is the mantra in Silicon Valley, too, where companies actively try to “fail fast”. By putting their software and prototypes into the market early, the learn about the inevitable bugs and deficiencies, the better to improve them. Indeed, one eminent venture capitalists told me recently that the most successful tech companies are not the ones with the best ideas, but the ones that adapt their flawed ideas the fastest.

This has huge implications for education. We teach kids a lot of concepts at school, which is a good thing. But life isn’t just about regurgitating spoon-fed knowledge. It is also about taking the initiative, and solving practical problems for which there isn’t a canned solution. Indeed, with the world changing so fast, driven into the future by A.I. and machine learning, the ability to reach into the unknown may prove to be the most important skill of all.

These skills can be learned – and mastered. Confidence is a bit like a muscle that grows with use. Our education system is doing many great things, but there should be a renewed focus on helping youngsters to find their inner passion, and the self-belief to pursue it with purpose. As a dad to two young children, I make loads of mistakes, and am still learning the ropes. But one thing I am adamant about is that they shouldn’t be crippled by fear of failure.

And this is why I have written a new book for nine to 14-year olds. A think tank recently estimated that children today will have around 17 different jobs over the course of their professional lives, the majority of which haven’t yet been invented! In this kind of world, the ability to think flexibly, to solve problems and to embrace fresh challenges will be crucial. How can you constantly look perfect when you are always having to learn new things?

I hope we will wake up to the dangers of the curse of perfectionism, driven by the online world. Youth should not be about anxiety and conformity, but a wonderful voyage of discovery.

Written by Matthew Syed and published by Virgin.com on 19th April 2018 as part of their spotlight series on entrepreneurial thinking

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