I’ve been thinking about failure recently—-REALLY??

I’ve been thinking about failure recently—-REALLY??

I’ve been thinking about failure recently. Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t in some deep dark mood wondering why things might be going to hell in a hand basket. Actually just the opposite. I was thinking how we best leverage what we learn from things that don’t go exactly like we would have hoped. For example, let’s say we launch a graduate certificate that we believe has been fully vetted and we have clearly identified our target audience but our enrollment falls much shorter than we anticipated. Is this a failure or is it really learning experience.

What got me thinking about failure was my recent reading on innovation and the growing mantra about how important it is to fail early and often and to learn from the failure. Bob Asghar in his article Why Silicon Valley’s ‘Fail Fast’ Mantra Is Just Hype captures my thinking, “Forget the cute mantras. No one should ever set out to fail.” I seriously doubt that anyone who wakes up in the morning and thinks, “Boy I can’t wait to fail so that I can learn fast. I start projects with the idea that they will be successful. I also build into the thinking a contingency plan just in case things don’t go well. Asghar suggests, “The key, really, shouldn’t be to embrace failure, but to embrace resilience and the ability to bounce back. And the goal shouldn’t be to glorify mistakes and errors and catastrophes, but to cultivate the ability to adapt and learn from them.”

If the key in failure is not the failure but your reaction to failure, what do we know about being the ability to bounce back from failure?

Travis Bradberry in his article “How to use failure to your advantage” suggests five actions that you can “take when you fail that will enable you to succeed in the future and allow others to see you positively in spite of your failure.”

  • Break the bad news yourself. Don’t wait around for someone to point out the failure, “when someone else points out your failure, that one failure turns into two.”
  • Provide an explanation “but don’t make excuses.” I would add that sooner the better in owning up to your failure. Remember the old saw “Crow often tastes better when it is warm.”
  • “Have a plan for fixing things” as compared to either just standing there and/or hoping someone will pick up the pieces. Become part of the solution as compared to being the problem.
  • “Have a plan for prevention.” Show others that you learned from the mistake and that you have a plan to prevent this same mistake in the future.
  • “Get back on the horse.” One reaction to failure is to become reluctant to suggest ideas and attempt new projects. There are times when I must admit I think I’m not putting my neck out there again but after some thoughtful moments, I do get back on that horse.

If you don’t get back on the horse than you develop a fear of failure that Bradberry reminds us “is worse than failure itself because it condemns you to a life of unrealized potential.”

I’ve work with people who develop such a fear of failure that they become almost paralyzed, unwilling to try anything until it is fully researched believing the only result will be success. And that is simply never a 100% possibility.

I stumbled across an article (Fail fast, fail often: How losing can help you win, thedailybest.com) that I use when talking to the staff about the importance of getting back on the horse and taking risks. It tells the story of a ceramics teacher who did an experiment with his class (taken from Art and Fear from Ted Orland and David Waylon). The teacher divided the class into two groups. Group one was told that their grade depended on “the single best piece produced over the duration of the course.” And the other group was told that their grade was dependent “on the quantity of their work. The more clay you use the higher your grade.”

You might guess or maybe not, that when it came to judging the pots “by technical and artistic sophistication” the best pots were made by the quantity group.   What happened is that students in the quality group spent most of their time in planning out the pot “to produce refined, flawless work.” Where as those in the quantity group spent their time making lots of pots and in the process “they were experimenting, becoming more adept at working with the class, and learning from the mistakes on each progressive piece.”

Facing failure is inevitable if you are a leader because leaders take chances. What isn’t inevitable is how you react to the failure. The road to success is not embracing the failure it is “to embrace resilience and the ability to bounce back.” I agree with Bradberry, persistence and optimism are two important characteristics to have in dealing with failure. “Persistent people are special because their optimism never dies. This makes them great at rising from failure.”

I wish you all the persistence to do great things and the optimism to rise from failure in making great successes.

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One Response to I’ve been thinking about failure recently—-REALLY??

  1. Don Swoboda says:

    My friend,
    I believe that failure is like attitude, YOU are the only one who can determine yours. If a program didn’t draw the number of people you expected, was it a failure, or was it a success for those who needed it then? If no one showed up, well, you’ve succeeded in identifying one more program not to pursue. If you want to truly measure your personal success or failure you’ve got to stay Big Picture or Long Run oriented. The old adage that if you have positively changed one life for the better, or left the world a better place than you found it no matter how small the significance might be, then you haven’t failed, and your life mattered. If you find someone who thinks their life doesn’t matter, then you’ve found your next opportunity to matter.

    Merry Christmas and Happy New Year

    don s

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