Our lives and careers are not a procession of perfect moments, interactions and achievements. We try, and fail. A lot. Most of us aren’t chomping at the bit to admit our failures, especially in our professional lives. But is failure really the dirty word we think it is?
The surprising answer is “no.”
What Is Failure?
Before we can talk about the benefits of failure, we need to define it. Failure is not the same as a mistake. A mistake is a misguided action or judgement. It’s a poor choice, an “oops.” Failure, on the other hand, is not achieving a desired outcome. Mistakes may lead to failure, but the two terms are not synonymous.
We can learn a lot from our failures, so why do so many people sweep them under the rug? Why do we think of failures as embarrassing? I’ll bet money you have used the phrase “trial and error” at some point in your life. When we use this phrase, it’s much more digestible. It makes us sound as though we have ingenuity and perseverance.
But what is trial and error other than a series of failures?
When you think about it, we were born to fail. It’s how we learn.
Babies are masters of failure.
So close! If he keeps trying, he’ll totally figure it out!
Have you ever seen a baby playing with one of these toys? They have to fit the correct block into the correct hole. They fail. Again and again. But each time they fail, they learn something.
They’ve received feedback in some way, either from a parent or their environment. Eventually, they figure out which blocks go where, and they get it right.
Maria Montessori used this to her advantage when she developed the Montessori method of teaching. She realized that children learn from their errors and gain confidence when they finally achieve success with a task. Graduates of Montessori schools are taught the value of failure from an early age, and they’ve gone on to do some amazing things.
Famous Montessori graduates include the founders of Amazon, Google, Wikipedia, and the developer of SimCity. Maybe there is something to this failure stuff after all.
“It is well to cultivate a friendly feeling towards error, to treat it as a companion inseparable from our lives, as something having a purpose, which it truly has.” — Maria Montessori
Lovely. But I Didn’t Go to a Montessori School
Me either. But now that we know how valuable failure can be, let’s take a closer look at how it works in our adult minds.
The Other F-Word
In the business world, we haven’t come to embrace failure with much enthusiasm. We devote a large portion of our day to our jobs. We’re dedicated, work hard, and we want to see positive results.
When something does not go as planned, we may want to blame someone or something else for the failure. And afterward, pretend it didn’t happened and never speak of it again.
This inclination can be costly and damaging.
The High Cost of Forgetting Your Failure
By disengaging from your failure, you forfeit a learning opportunity.
Instead, you could ask, “Where did we go awry? Was it during planning? Execution?” In truth it may have been several things. Unpack the failure and discuss what went right, and what went wrong. It’s a learning opportunity you’ve already paid for. Don’t throw it away.
A great recent example of a company learning through failure is Space X (maybe you’ve heard of Elon Musk, the founder of PayPal, Tesla, and Space X). The privately funded space exploration company spent US$90 million to develop the Falcon 1 rocket, designed to deliver low Earth orbit satellites to space. Its first launch failed less than a minute into the flight. Its second launch also failed. Third launch? Fail.
But Space X did not abandon the project, or ignore their failures. They dissected their failures and learned from each launch attempt. The fourth and fifth launches of the Falcon 1 rocket were successful, paving the way for development of more sophisticated systems and very lucrative contracts.
They recently failed again. But they’ll keep going.
This doesn’t just apply to software startups and rocket ships. Embracing failure even works with vacuum cleaners.
You heard that right. He said “A few THOUSAND prototypes later…”
“I made 5,127 prototypes of my vacuum before I got it right. There were 5,126 failures. But I learned from each one. That’s how I came up with a solution. So I don’t mind failure.” – James Dyson
Trade Accusation for Motivation
If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Rarely is the failure of a project the fault of one person or department. Recognize that things don’t always work out as planned. And, rather than pointing fingers, rally your team and harness the power of their disappointment to motivate them in creating new, innovative solutions.
It Can Be Exhilarating
Once you’ve accepted that it’s OK to fail at something, you become more comfortable with the idea. The feelings of self-consciousness and shame give way to exhilaration, because the world is full of new things to try and ideas to execute. When failure is no longer something you fear, you become more and more comfortable with taking risks, and risks don’t always lead to failure.
They also lead to reward!
Accepting our failures may not be easy for some of us. It can make us feel weak and vulnerable. If that’s something you struggle with that, check out this Ted Talk.
Ignoring failure in pursuit of perceived infallibility denies you access to your own vulnerability, what author Brené Brown calls the “birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change.”
In case you’re still not convinced that it is worth persevering through failure, check out this list of highly successful people who took the motto “keep on keeping on” to heart, and winked at failure in the rearview mirror.
- JK Rowling was rejected by 12 publishing houses before Harry Potter was sold.
- Howard Schultz talked to 242 people about investing in his company (a little coffeehouse called Starbucks); 217 of them said no.
- Kelly Clarkson moved to Los Angeles to pursue her dream, but returned home to Texas after a string of bad luck. She did not give up, however, and in 2002 won the first season of American Idol.
Persevere, and learn from your failures, and you too could have A Moment Like This.
This blog can’t teach you life lessons. You must experience them yourself. But if you open yourself up to situations that might end in failure, you’re also opening yourself up to a world of learning and success. And when you learn to value success more than you fear failure, just like Space X, the sky’s the limit.