How the fear of failure can fuel your next big idea


Matt Cascarino

3 Minute Read

I’m convinced that my son, Wylie, is among the top 1% of children in the school district who can’t catch a football. It’s not entirely his fault. Cascarino hands have always been better suited for removing a stray piece of lint from an otherwise-pristine cardigan sweater than behaving as an asset on the playing field. But his is an affliction far more severe than a habitual case of the dropsies. It’s as if his hands have been temporarily replaced with tangerine-sized hunks of granite, sending the ball skyward in unpredictable trajectories that even the most skilled defensive backs couldn’t track down. Still, we always refuse to go inside until Wylie successfully hauls in one “long bomb,” even if it means missing a meal. The next day, he’s at it again, fueled not by the suggestion of practice making perfect, but going for it because the odds are never in his favor.

Whenever I invite someone from outside of the creative staff to a brainstorm, I’m often met with the excuse: “I’m not creative.” What they’re really saying is: “I’m afraid I won’t have any good ideas.” But the dirty little secret in the creative den is that we share that same fear. It’s not because we’re weak. It’s because we care. And that’s what gives us the courage to air out even the most miserable clunkers without apology. Because we know eventually, we’ll find our star. I have always believed that great ideas can come from anyone, regardless of job title. If the fear of failure has ever prevented you from contributing to the conversation, here’s some encouragement to bring you in off the ledge.

Crash the party

Many people perceive brainstorming sessions like entering a Thunderdome of quick-witted marketers spinning endless strands of box-office gold, the floor sagging under the weight of the team’s brilliance. I wish. While there are times when we can get a pretty good volley going, what we crave is the perspective of the outsider. That’s where you can add value to ideation, especially if you work in areas like sales, customer care, or relationship management where you have direct contact with the customer. And don’t wait for an invitation. If you have front-line insights you can bring back to the nest, speak up and you’ll get an enthusiastic welcome to the table or video conference.

Cross the line

When pitching an idea, it’s better to go too far and walk it back than not push your thinking beyond the comfort of the expected. That’s how Ilumya™, a treatment for plaque psoriasis, rose above the noise from no fewer than three competitors who have been dominating television advertising recently. Specifically, Ilumya went against the common narrative of showing happy patients post-treatment, choosing instead to expose the suffering of people burdened with tidying up the liberal dusting of dead skin flakes they’ve left behind. This graphic approach may have horrified the client at first; but it tactfully transports the viewer to the highest point of anxiety, allowing the company to make a more empathetic connection with their target market compared to the competition. This doesn’t mean the strangest ideas in the room are the best. But if something feels “a little out there” without abandoning what’s relevant to the audience, you’re probably onto something good.

Show your flaws 

I can’t think of a single band that emerged from their parents’ garages fully matured and ready for the big time. (Except Led Zeppelin. Zeppelin rules!) It takes the influence of each member to transform something from raw to refined. Ideas are never in final form at their inception. They’re always introduced partially baked, some slightly shimmering, while others nobody wants to stand downwind from. But foraging for the good bits is a natural part of ideation. And when the group isn’t expecting perfection, you develop the confidence to share, knowing that even your scraps contain some nutritional value.

You don’t need to be a writer, a designer, or even a marketer to lend your ideas toward crafting vibrant and compelling work. There are no secret handshakes or arcane languages to learn to collaborate with “creative types” who live to extend the boundaries beyond where they were the day before. You simply need something to say and the courage to say it. So, the next time you’re too afraid to throw that Hail Mary pass into the end zone, shut your eyes and let it fly. Not always, but every so often, someone comes down with the ball. 

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