What Would You Attempt If You Knew You Could Not Fail?

Robert H. Schuller? Regina Dugan? Sebastian Thrun? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: There is a saying in self-help books that presents encouragement in the form of a question with a trace of wistfulness:

What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?

This statement was highlighted in a TED talk by Regina Dugan, the former director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Do you know the name of the person who crafted this motivational query?

Quote Investigator: Robert H. Schuller was a minister and popular speaker who was best known for hosting a syndicated television show called “Hour of Power” and for building an impressive edifice called the Crystal Cathedral. He published a book in 1973 titled “You Can Become the Person You Want To Be”. The second chapter started with a set of questions; these were the first three:[ref] 1973, You Can Become the Person You Want To Be by Robert H. Schuller, Chapter 2: Set Your Goals and Let Them Lift You, Quote Page 11, Hawthorn Books, New York. (Verified on paper)[/ref]

What goals would you be setting for yourself if you knew you could not fail?

What dreams would you have on the drawing board if you had unlimited financial resources?

What plans would you be making if you had thirty years to carry them out?

Schuller continued by asking each reader to think about the role he or she wished to play in the “drama of human life”:

Clarify your role before you set your goal or you’ll encounter confusion and frustration. Conflict in inter-personal relations is too often the result of a misinterpretation by the involved persons of the roles each should be playing.

Schuller’s book contained the earliest evidence located by QI of this interrogative framework being used to aid a person to delineate goals and formulate a plan or purpose. The phrasing differed somewhat from the version used by Dugan.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1977 Robert H. Schuller published an article in “New Woman” magazine based on the material in his book.[ref] 1977 May-June, New Woman, Volume 7, If You Haven’t Achieved as Much as You’d Like by Robert H. Schuller, (From “You Can Become the Person You Want To Be” by Robert H. Schuller), Start Page 32, Quote Page 32, Published by New Woman, a subsidiary of Allied Publications, New York. (Verified on paper)[/ref]

There are six questions you must ask yourself to attain excitement, achievement and success:

1 What goals would you be setting for yourself if you knew you could not fail?

2 What dreams would you have on the drawing board if you had unlimited financial resources?

In addition to six probing questions, Schuller presented other spurs for readers. For example, he included a formula and a mnemonic in the article:

Goal + Toll = SUCCESS. Establish your goal. Be prepared to pay the price in terms of time, money, energy and credit-sharing, and you’ll succeed.

Remember: Triumph is made up of two words: TRY and UMPH.

In 1978 the question appeared as the first sentence in Schuller’s syndicated newspaper column called “It’s Possible”:[ref] 1978 May 8, St. Albans Daily Messenger, It’s Possible by Robert Schuller, Quote Page 4, Column 7 and 8, St. Albans, Vermont. (GenealogyBank)[/ref]

What goals would you be setting for yourself if you knew you could not fail?

The article referred to previous lack of success in the final paragraph, but provided solace in future possibilities:

Do not be held back by past failures. When the sun rises tomorrow, the light of the new day will illuminate an open door that beckons you to enter a new world called The Land of Beginning Again!

In 2014 the author Warren Berger discussed an instance of the query with a different phrasing on a website called Co-Design which is part of the media organization Fast Company. Berger noted the recent popularity of the statement with entrepreneurial individuals:[ref] Website: Fast Company’s Co.Design – business + innovation + design, Website editor: Suzanne LaBarre, Article title: Scared Of Failing? Ask Yourself These 6 Fear-Killing Questions, Article author: Warren Berger, Author information: Wrote book “A More Beautiful Question”, Article date on website: March 10, 2014, Website description: “Our focus is on highlighting the world’s best examples of design and innovation” from Fast Company & Inc., Mansueto Ventures, LLC. (Accessed fastcodesign.com on July 18, 2014)[/ref]

Here’s a question: What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?

If that question seems familiar, it should. One of the hallmarks of a powerful question is that it gets passed around, and among innovators I spoke with in the tech industry, this one has been making the rounds perhaps more than any other–quoted by everyone from Google’s Regina Dugan to Sebastian Thrun at Udacity and Airbnb co-founder Joe Gebbia.

Interestingly, the question did not originate in Silicon Valley. It can be traced back three decades to the American pastor Robert Schuller, who used it in inspirational sermons and books. But its popularity was jumpstarted a few years ago by Dugan, who featured the question in a widely circulated 2010 TED speech (Dugan was a creative director at DARPA at the time).

In conclusion, QI believes that Robert H. Schuller can be credited with originating the statement printed in his 1973 book “You Can Become the Person You Want To Be”. Other appearances of the expression were apparently derived directly or indirectly from Schuller.

(Great thanks to Peter Hopkins whose query led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Thanks to Mike Klein who pointed to a typo in the text of the 1977 citation. The corrected text states “knew you could not fail”.)

Update History: On January 3, 2018 the text of the 1977 citation was changed from “knew you could fail” to “knew you could not fail”.

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