Learning How To Fail

Last week we delved into the sixth personal transformer give failure its due.

Over the past weekend, in Australia we have had the grand finales played out with the two National football codes. The one story that has resonated with me the most has been that of Nathan Buckley. A player that was so self-absorbed he was dubbed FIGJAM (I will let you to do the unraveling of the acronym). A coach so intense that he was on the verge of being sacked less than 12 months ago. And yet had his charges in the Grand Final against the expectations of the pundits who mostly had Collingwood out of the top eight. Whilst the Magpies lost the Grand Final, Nathan Buckley has again grown as a leader. Pictured above are three symbolic moments that no one would have predicted in the early years of Bucks’ tenure. The ‘gods’ were against the Pies from the start when the banner evaporated (yet Buckley consoled the chief organizer before the game); the runner interfered with the flow of the game and cost the team a goal (yet Buckley consoled him, ensuring that he did not take on the blame of a 5 point loss); Nathan’s thoughts post game were his player and this from a man considered aloof. Who would bet against this team in the future? Especially one who are led by a man who gives failure its due

When you transform, you are walking into the unknown, exposing yourself into the unknown. While exploring unknown territory you are certainly going to miss-step. Some mistakes will be inconsequential, leading to delays or inconveniences. Others will be gigantic, earth-shattering failures that will make you doubt your choices. Or even doubt yourself. So how do we learn from failure?

As I have grappled with my own failures, and as I have watched others dealing with setbacks, I have observed several responses that seem to ameliorate failure, transforming it into a stepping-stone to future success.

1. Recognise that it’s not a matter of If, but When

IDEO is seen as the world’s leading design thinking firm. Its mantra is to “fail forward faster.” Employees are constantly challenging their managers’ decisions, calling out failures, challenging convention, and having those difficult conversations. Failure is something that people see happening and see discussed, so is no longer feared. But instead, it’s seen as an opportunity to learn something and improve.

2. Redefine Success

We live in a world where being anything less than the best is tantamount to failure. Figures from the sports and business arenas seem uniquely adept at coining derogatory quotes about not winning. “Second place is the first place loser.” If this is really what we believe to be true, most of us are 99.9% failures and .1% winners.

3. Acknowledge and Share Sadness

When I fail, I am mortified, but I am also heartbroken. I have envisioned a future in which I would achieve a goal, and perhaps be hailed as the conquering hero. And then I didn’t. And I wasn’t. I’ve learned it is important to grieve. It has been said by a number of psychologists who study recovery from trauma that mourning without empathy leads to madness. Author Sue Monk Kidd said, “There’s no pain on earth that doesn’t crave a benevolent witness.” So don’t hide your failures, much as you may want to bury them deep in the earth where they will never be seen. Acknowledge them and share them with someone you trust.

4. Jettison Shame

If you let a failure become a referendum on you, the millstone of shame will drown you and your dreams. Shame & vulnerability expert Dr. Brene Brown hammers this idea home. In professional sports, the military, or corporate life, “When the ethos is ‘kill or be killed’, ‘control or be controlled’, failure is tantamount to be ‘killed.’” Being perceived as weak elicits tremendous shame. We frequently applaud failure in theory, but the dirty little secret is that it makes all of us feel at least a little ashamed.

Any dishonor we feel when we fail must be deep-sixed, labeled as the detritus that it is. If it isn’t, we may never speak again in public, throw ourselves into a new job, or invest in another company. Failure itself doesn’t limit dreaming and personal innovation – shame does. Once we pull shame out of the equation, we eliminate the drag, and gain the lift we need to accelerate back into daring.

5. Learn from It

As we are faced with interim failures in our personal transformation process, the narrative we construct is key. It’s not just about learning lessons along the way. If we want an end-game success, it’s about learning the right kind of lesson. The Lean Startup author Eric Ries describes this as validated learning, in which you ask: What valuable truth did you discover about your present and future prospects by failing?

6. Know When it is Okay to Quit

One lesson you might learn from failure is that you are on the wrong curve for you. Famed football coach Vince Lombardi said, “Winners never quit.” Marketing guru Seth Godin countered with, “Winners quit all the time. They just quit the right stuff at the right time.” In these instances, quitting, or finding a new curve, may be the smart choice. It is important to dream, and it is important to know when to find a new dream.

I often hear it said that failure is not an option. I agree. Not because failure is not permissible. It is. Failure is inevitable and sometimes even requisite. Poet John Milton said, “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” I think this is also true with success and failure. Just as the mind can make of every success a failure, in every failure there can be a success. As you transform yourself and sometimes struggle up the steep slope of a new learning curve, remember that failure can be your companion at times. If you welcome failure as a guide and teacher, you’re more likely to find your way to success.

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