What is your greatest failure?
Most people find this question incredibly difficult for a myriad of different reasons. The answer to this question typically provides more insight into how the respondent views failure itself than the actual shortcomings demonstrated of the respondent.
An article was published in The Economist this week called “Fail Often, Fail Well,” that goes into depth on the benefits of learning how to fail effectively.
“Business writers have always worshipped at the altar of success. Tom Peters turned himself into a superstar with “In Search of Excellence”. Stephen Covey has sold more than 15m copies of “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”. Malcolm Gladwell cleverly subtitled his third book, “Outliers”, “The Story of Success”. This success-fetish makes the latest management fashion all the more remarkable. The April issue of the Harvard Business Review is devoted to failure, featuring among other contributors A.G. Lafley, a successful ex-boss of Procter & Gamble (P&G), proclaiming that “we learn much more from failure than we do from success.” The current British edition of Wired magazine has “Fail! Fast. Then succeed. What European business needs to learn from Silicon Valley” on its cover. IDEO, a consultancy, has coined the slogan “Fail often in order to succeed sooner”.
There are good reasons for the failure fashion. Success and failure are not polar opposites: you often need to endure the second to enjoy the first. Failure can indeed be a better teacher than success. It can also be a sign of creativity. The best way to avoid short-term failure is to keep churning out the same old products, though in the long term this may spell your doom. Businesses cannot invent the future—their own future—without taking risks.”
The piece goes on to give examples of how embracing and managing failures can benefit businesses and is a great read. But how can you apply the lesson to you as an individual as opposed to just looking from an organizational standpoint?
I grew up, like many people in our society, fearing failure. Whether it was working through school assignments or playing kickball at the park I had been conditioned to have a fear of not doing well. Although I think that feeling is very natural for most people I think it is very dangerous as well. By avoiding situations where you may fail you inevitably begin avoid situations where you have the opportunity to succeed.
As I have gotten older and experienced various successes in my personal and professional life I am more and more appreciative of the adversity that led to those successes. I may have not enjoyed the adversity at the time but it was a critical component in my overall success.
Two attitudinal adjustments have helped me immensely in managing my fear of failure and have thereby become a foundation for successes that I have: Although, like anyone else, battling self doubt is always a work in progress for me.
1. Maintain A Commitment To Learning From Adversity: By entering into every endeavor with a desire to learn from the experience it is difficult to categorize any outcome as a failure. So many of my past struggles have served me well in my future endeavors. Of course it is easier to recognize the value in a challenge after the bad taste has faded over time, but that is why it is so important to maintain the commitment to learning from your experiences on the way in.
2. Failure Is An End State And The Only Certain End State In Life Is Death: Failure is a bit of a dirty word for me in the sense that I don’t view most experiences as "failures." The only experience I view as a true failure is quitting. If you don’t quit something entirely you are merely experiencing a setback, and all setbacks can be overcome over time. If you are citing certain experiences as failures you likely gave up. By maintaining that the only certainty in your life is that it will eventually come to an end, a natural shift will occur in your attitude towards setbacks. Things may not always work out just as you would have liked but if you keep moving forward and learn from your setbacks you will avoid settling into a failure mentality.
Successful people and organizations push through and learn from "failures," with the most successful embracing and even seeking out "failure" learning opportunities. Embracing that mentality is not a natural feeling but one that will undoubtedly benefit organizations and individuals alike.