Failure Judo: Visualize Failure

This is part 1 of the Failure Judo Series.

One tactical approach to reclaiming failure is the use of visualization.  Visualization is a psychological technique used in a range of different high-performance fields, from athletics to surgery.  Essentially, visualization involves a focused, mental rehearsal of something you are about to do.  Many visualization techniques focus on optimum performance, which focus on the feelings and specific actions that will all contribute to an ideal outcome in that situation.  For example, Michael Phelps might sit in the ready room before an Olympic Final in the 200 meter butterfly (hands-down, my favorite Phelps race), his headphones on.  What is likely playing on the movie screen of his mind is a first-person account of exactly what he wants to happen in that race.  At Phelps’ level, it probably includes things like a specific number of kicks underwater, the exact number of strokes in each lap, and how it will feel to touch the wall first.

This type of visualization has ben proven helpful in fine tuning athletic performance, and is helpful in any type of situation when success demands a high level of precision.  However, visualizing the optimum performance is just one approach.  Another way we can use visualization is through the visualization of failure.  Prior to engaging in a task, action or project that is important to you, a natural reaction is to avoid thinking about the worst-case outcomes.  However, think about the possible benefits of engaging in not just considering the possibility of failure, but actually visualizing it.  

If you can, try to spend a few minutes visualizing failure at the task in front of you.  What would it feel like?  What might cause the failure?  How would you respond to it after the fact?  How might you take action after the failure in order to recover and carry on with the work?  The more detailed you can get in your visualization, the more mentally prepared you will be for your task.   This sort of mental preparation can benefit you in a couple of ways:  First, if something does go wrong, you will be ready.  You will know what you need to do, and you won’t be surprised by the failure.  Second, by examining all of the things that could go wrong, you might find yourself acting with more wisdom and better preparation in the first place, allowing you to be more successful in the short term.

Tim Ferriss has written and spoken extensively (  about a process he calls Fear Setting.  This process parallels visualization of fear, but takes it a step further.  It asks questions like “What’s the worst that can happen?”, but also “If the worst happens, what will I do about it?”  This analytical approach to understanding our own fears and failures helps us understand the nature of our fears, but also prepares us by pre-planning our own response in the case of failure.  Whether by Fear Setting or through visualization, lowering the fear level around any potential failure in our future allows us to be present, focus on the task at hand, and act boldly.

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