Lately I have been thinking a lot about what it means to fail. Most of the advice out there in leadership and management is about success: how to have a successful career, how to build a successful company, and how to become a success full stop. Who would not want to know why Oprah has succeeded, and how people like Tim Ferris are out there interviewing celebrities so that we can also learn the keys to success.
But what is intriguing about all this advice is that there is another strand of thinking emerging from the leadership literature that focuses on understanding failure.
We are inherently programmed not to favour failure: in school, no one likes to be the worst performer in sports or math, and many of us stop trying new things because we could fail. Much of this is often due to social pressure and our wish to be accepted but also because failing makes us uncomfortable.
The best synthesis of what this failure approach is all about comes from my long time idol Will Smith. He certainly has been super successful from being a rapper to motivational speaker to a movie icon. He has broken through so many stereotypes and yet this is what he has to say about failure:
What I think is so powerful about his insights is that “practice is controlled failure”. Being successful means you are ready to and constantly seek failure so that you can learn and push yourself to be better.
In Adam Grant’s recent interview with Lindsey Vonn, the greatest female skier ever, the focus was really on what was driving her passion to compete and succeed. Lindsey actually discussed how failure is experimental learning:
“Failures are new challenges—they make me more excited to go back out there because I did something wrong and I know I can fix it”
So failing is one part of life but perhaps even more importantly the trick is really how you deal with failure. We can listen to all the podcasts and interviews how to imitate and reach success, there is a whole industry around that. I mean, who would not want to rehearse the 55 significant morning routines that highly successful people do instead of doing the hard yards of 55 ways to fail?
Failure lifts up a mirror to ourselves and much of what we see is not pretty. So most of us would rather not deal with that. This is what I call “failure dodging”.
Failure dodging happens when we deliberately plan everything so carefully that we eliminate any possibility of failure, or more precisely: so that we do not have to experience failure.
But just as at work as in parenting, letting ourselves experience failure and letting our children do the same are actually great moments of true learning. But it is much harder to change our mindset in those moments when things have gone wrong and we feel defeated.
I am speaking here from experience. I definitely am guilty of “failure dodging”: I’d rather sometimes not try something new if the odds are there is failure involved. Even more so if there are other people around who can see me fail. It’s all partly irrational: you can’t be expected to be perfect from day 1 for example in a job that you have never done before.
Being afraid of failure, however, often stops us from innovation and learning new things and essentially can stall our careers. Embracing failure does not mean we should just fail on purpose so we can learn but find new ways of thinking and dealing with failure when that occurs.
Focus on certain failure
So what are some of the techniques to try if you are stuck in failure dodging and would rather daydream about success? I would encourage you to actually do the opposite and imagine that you have already failed. Imagine all the things that would happen: what would your colleagues say at work? What would prospective employees say when they looked at your resume and knew about your failed start up? What would your peers say if your paper and idea got the worst reviews?
Now, go to that place and start working backwards. What did you not consider? What options did you not look for? Were you so stuck in focusing on what your problem is that you missed opportunities to think differently?
This is an actual approach to decision-making and risk identification by Gary Klein. He claims that by accepting massive total future failure, people actually start being more creative about why something like that happened, and have a better chance to identify risks and opportunities to prevent the failure from actually happening. It’s another way of embracing failure and learning at the same time.
In the end, dealing with failure is about practicing critical reflection: why we react to something like we do. By truly understanding our core motivations and feelings, we can also better embrace failure as a new opportunity and a new challenge.
This of course does not apply to every kind of failure and not for everyone. Some things are too heavy for anyone to deal with alone. The talk about “failure as an opportunity” can also become depressing in those cases where things are just too complicated.
Btw, turns out that Gary Klein is really into something significant with his idea of imagining failure. A recent study at Stanford has developed a new tool, brain-machine interface, that can track the way a brain prepares for an event. By rehearsing a certain activity before actually doing it could increase the rate of success.
I would encourage you to see where this fear of failure, or “failure dodging” is showing up in your life. Is there something at work that you have thought you should try (new method, new way of communication, new skill) but you are holding back for fear of failure? Do you have ideas for scientific papers or research that you are afraid might get harshly judged in the peer review process? A sport you’d like to try but have put off because you don’t know how to do it yet?
These are pretty simple questions but I think embracing everyday failures and learning from that is essential. But perhaps most of all, it’s about self compassion: not expecting ourselves to be perfect, and practicing the Growth Mindset: I can’t… yet.