Into the Unknown: Why achieving greatness always means risking failure

It was 1961, and the Soviet Union had just launched the first man into space. President Kennedy responded to this extraordinary feat by saying, “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth.”

The race in space was on between two countries who were sworn enemies fighting what would become a decades-long Cold War. From 1963 to 1965, it looked like the Soviets were winning the race as they launched the first woman, landed the first satellite, and performed the first spacewalk.

The American race into the unknown met with tragedy on January 27, 1967. The crew of the Apollo I were killed in a fire on the launchpad. Later that same year, on April 23, tragedy struck again when a Soviet cosmonaut died because his spacecraft’s reentry parachute failed.

These incidents caused both countries to stop flights for an entire year. However, the Soviets continued working in secret. When NASA resumed its space program, the Soviets had already scheduled their subsequent missions. No one knew what they were planning. Maybe it was to place a man on the moon!

On July 16, 1969, Apollo 11 was ready for liftoff. Just a few weeks earlier, the Americans had spotted a huge Soviet rocket via satellite photos. Days later, the ruins of this rocket were seen. It had blown up. If America could avoid catastrophe, the nation would reach the moon and win the race into the unknown.

Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong and Michael Collins were the astronauts selected for this history-making mission. All three men spent countless hours in preparation, weeks stretching into months. Armstrong mastered flying the lunar module Eagle. Collins perfected 18 different rendezvous points for the command module Columbia. Aldrin perfected simulated moon-walking. They were preparing for an experience like none before. They were going to walk on the moon.

Final preparations were made. They spent their last weekend with their families. They knew they might not ever return. On July 20, 1969, the crew flew face down through space, then flipped over and saw Earth one-quarter million miles away. They fired the engines when they were only 12 minutes from landing on the moon.

As they approached, the computer onboard became overloaded, lights began to flash in the cockpit, and a “program alarm” sounded off. Armstrong and Aldrin faced the Sea of Tranquility, the place where they were scheduled to land. Shockingly, it was a sea of rocks! Armstrong barely cleared the boulders and flew over the craters. Finally, he saw an open spot to land. He needed to come down perfectly or risk damaging the spacecraft. Astonishingly, they landed safely.

Armstrong climbed out of the spacecraft and positioned a television camera. Now over 600 million people could watch as he became the first man to touch the moon’s surface. He then spoke his famous words: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Making the journey into the unknown is filled with uncertainty and unexpected events. However, the rewards can be monumental. By breaking the fear of the unknown, you open up possibilities to do what you have never done before and to be who you have never been before.

Many leaders live life wanting all the blanks filled in. They want to see the agenda, the plan, and every step to how everything is going to work. Before they get on board, they want to have everything explained. But, if you have lived long enough, you know that life does not work like that. Life does not give you all the answers ahead of time. Life does not fill in all the blanks for you. Neither does God.

Sometimes, you have to begin not knowing exactly how it is all going to work out. Life has a degree of uncertainty that is always present. To progress, you must become comfortable with uncertainty, and you must instill that in the people you lead.

Consider the example of Abram in Genesis 12:1-4. Abram obeyed when God told him to leave his country, family and father’s house to go to a land that God would show him. There is no record that Abram asked God for any details before departing. He simply trusted God enough to begin, and God blessed him, helping him in his journey to the Land of Promise. The journey to the unknown land was—in reality—the journey of faith.

Many of us want to have everything mapped out. We want God to show us the entire plan. We say, “God, just give me a little snapshot of how this is all going to work out, and I will follow you.” But, as you may well know, God does not work like that. God always leaves a few blanks in the sentence to stretch our faith. If He gave us all the details, I doubt that we would move at all—especially when we see the challenges we might have to endure along the way!

People who are afraid of the unknown seldom accomplish anything because they are scared to go after something wholeheartedly. They are afraid to do anything they have never done before. They are scared to go where they have never been before. They are afraid to have what they have never had before.

Some of us have become so accustomed to our way of living, so used to our world, that when God presents an opportunity to experience something we have never experienced before, we get fearful and back up. Yet, we expect to have what we have never had before, forgetting that to have what we have never had, we have to do what we have never done! Remember, the “same old, same old” habits and strategies will produce “same old, same old” results.

Where there is fear of the unknown, there is no faith to push forward. This is why many of us—and those we lead—get stuck in our comfort zones and in unproductive cycles and predictable ways of doing things. We are afraid to have what we have never had before. Life has conditioned some of us to accept dysfunction or abuse as normal, so we lack the courage to reach for something new. Fear of the unknown keeps us from apprehending the breakthrough that God has for them or us. It keeps everyone from having what they have never had and being what they have never been before.

For some of us, the fear is so great that it paralyzes us, and we lose the faith to break through. So, we stay outside the promise and never see the season of birthing come forth. In the end, that word, that promise, that dream we have been carrying never becomes a reality—all because of the fear of the unknown.

Some people are afraid to do what they have never done before—they do not know if they want to take the risk or put themselves in what they feel is a vulnerable position. Other people are afraid to go places they have never gone before. They are used to certain surroundings or a particular group of friends, a certain environment. Doing something new requires them to go where they have never gone before.

Some people are afraid to have what they have never had before. Because of their low self-estimation or self-worth, they think they are only supposed to live at a certain level. They believe they are disqualified from having anything better. Thoughts like, I am not worthy of this, so I am not going to pursue it, or I do not think I am supposed to have that, so I am afraid to accept anything beyond my current reality—afraid to be what I have never been before, pervade their reality.

You should neither disqualify yourself nor allow them to disqualify themselves from better things. You must be careful how you think about yourself, “For as [a man] thinketh in his heart, so [is] he” (Proverbs 23:7, KJV), and model proper thinking for those who look to you for guidance.

Life has a way of conditioning people to survive and not thrive. After becoming conditioned, we become comfortable and complacent. It is dangerous to become comfortable with one’s current condition or position because there is much more available! If you believe that your current condition is normal, you will lack the tenacity, courage, fortitude and boldness to change it. If you are convinced that where you are in life is the best that it will ever be, you will settle for that. Your followers will do the same.

If you begin to think that it is just your lot in life, and you are supposed to just accept it, or that you are never going to see a brighter day or experience more than you have right now, then guess what? Your low expectations will come to pass. You will continue to experience only what you are experiencing now! Get ready to continue living your life under those same low ceilings.

This is the reason so many people are frustrated and dissatisfied with life. They feel trapped by their own existence. They have become imprisoned by the limitations of their thinking and imaginations. There ought to be something in you that is always reaching, always stretching, striving for something more. People will emulate it in their lives.

Now, do not get me wrong. I am not talking about being ungrateful or discontented. I believe you should be thankful, happy and content—but you should be determined that you will not stay where you are forever. There are no unknowns with God (see 1 John 3:20 and John 16:30). So, step out in faith, knowing that you’ll never outrun Him. His hand is always ahead of you. The unknown calamity that keeps you from stepping out in faith will have to deal with Him first before it reaches you. Comforting, isn’t it? Can you hear Him telling you, like he told the Israelites in Isaiah 54:5, “Fear not”? I hope so. And share that gentle instruction with those you lead.

SIDEBAR: Four Keys for Conquering Fear

To overcome the fear of the unknown, breakthrough people take several action steps:

  1. Identify where this fear exists in their lives.

They are aware of where it shows up and how it hinders their progress. Breakthrough people are brave enough to admit and face the fear. Only after people locate the fear are they able to eradicate the fear. All too often, we make excuses and rationalize our way out of confronting the unknown. We convince ourselves that it is easier and less painful to deny or just avoid it. Recognize how this fear manifests in your life? Where does it hinder progress in your life? What opportunities have you missed out on as a result of not confronting this fear?

  1. Reflect on what makes them uncomfortable about facing the fear.

For example, some people stay in a dysfunctional relationship that is negatively impacts them because they believe that this is better than not having a relationship. In this scenario, the real fear is being alone. Friend, if you find yourself in such a relationship and have chosen just to accept it, there is a possibility that the thought of being by yourself terrifies you. The unknown of being alone has trapped you in a bad situation. Get to the root of what makes you afraid and deal with the real issue.

  1. Look at the unknown objectively.

If you look at the unknown subjectively, you will see it only through your insecurities and limitations and end up creating negative outcomes in your mind. Instead, learn to look at the unknown objectively. Look at others who have faced the same unknown and have achieved triumphant outcomes.

Others have often faced the same uncertainties and even greater, yet they stepped out with boldness into the unknown and made remarkable accomplishments. If you have not summoned the courage yet, look for examples from others who have faced the fear of the unknown and overcome. Let their stories and victories inspire you. If Neil Armstrong could walk on the moon, there must be a star up there waiting on you!

  1. Decide to take action.

Determine what you can do, and do it. You cannot allow the fear of the unknown to master you. You must master it. The first step to taking action is developing a plan. List each step that you need to take to move forward.

Do not be overwhelmed by the size of the matter at hand. Take it one step at a time. As the African proverb says, “The way that you eat an elephant is by taking one bite at a time!” Choose to walk out of the limitations of your mind, doing what you have never done before, going where you have never gone before, having what you have never had before, and being what you have never been before. It doesn’t happen overnight, but it does begin with each of us a step.


This article was extracted from Issue 6 (Summer 2021) of the AVAIL Journal. Claim your free annual subscription here.

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