The concept of failure as a valuable learning tool is a hot topic in the media and on the internet. Business Week writes that, “failure breeds success.” Paul Krugman writes in the NY Times that in many cases “failure is a good thing.” Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker Magazine writes about the “art of failure.” On YouTube, I watched an interesting video where the main premise is that, “failing is essential to product innovation.” In all of these cases, the argument is that what is learned from failure is important to realizing success (at some point in the future). So failure is good, right? Then why does failing seem so wrong?
“I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward” ~ Thomas Edison
The word “failure” represents the unthinkable. Failure is the worst possible outcome; it invokes fear and loathing. Parents tell their children “to shape up or they will be a failure in life!” No one wants to hear that “their failure led to the demise of the project,” or “she failed to carry her share of the load.” Let’s face it – failure is a word we hate to see anywhere near our name. By definition, failure is to prove unsuccessful; defeated; inefficient; overwhelmed; non-performance; a subnormal quantity or quality. None of us want to be associated with any of these terms. We are bred for success, or led to believe the idea that success (the good) will separate us from those who fail (the bad).
So how can being associated with failure be good? Failure can be positive if we learn from it by making adjustments and corrections that ultimately lead to something different in the future – something better!
In today’s economic environment there are many good people who have experienced failure. There are situations that you cannot control. Some times you see it coming; other times, events simply overtake you. The key is how you react – how you go about processing the situation, making adaptations each time that will eventually drive you to do things differently. Our natural tendency is to deny or shift the blame for failure (e.g. it was not my fault). We engage in logical fallacies and filtering to ease the pain of its reality. This is part of the very human coping mechanism that protects our egos, reduces anxiety, and increases hope. But, ultimately we have to move forward from failure – either armed with the knowledge of the past, or stuck in a loop of decay.
So how can you learn from failures?
- It is good to have someone you can “talk it out with” to help you separate what can be learned from the negativity and other self-defeating emotions that follow failure.
- Make sure you get a clear picture of what happened. If it is a professional failure, ask those who are making the evaluation for clarification. How was the failure determined? By whom? What were their criteria? You are not looking for validation or to cross-exam the decision, but just some clues that can help you learn.
- Focus on your accomplishments and not on your failures. Each day you record successes: some small, some large – all of them are a positive reflection of the good that you bring, and they should be celebrated.
- Keep focused on the future – not the past. The past will always be there. It will contain its lessons, but the real action will happen today, tomorrow, next week – only in the future.
- Remember that the answer is not just to work harder in the future, but to follow a strategy that will lead to success. Following the same strategy and taking the same actions that led to the failure will simply not generate different results.
There are many examples of individuals who have suffered failures only to turn them around and achieve great success. Abraham Lincoln was defeated eight times during public elections. Thomas Edison lost a fortune while trying to create a practical way to mine iron ore. Steve Jobs spent millions on the Lisa Computer. Do you even remember the Lisa Computer? These are just a few examples of famous individuals who suffered failures but took the lessons from these events and re-emerged with new strategies that changed the course of history.
Henry Ford wrote that “Failure is the opportunity to begin again more intelligently.” Failure may not be the gateway to success, but it can bring changes that result in the creation of something different – probably something even better!