Today I want to talk about the F word.
failure | fālyər |
- A lack of success
- An unsuccessful person, enterprise or thing
We have a dysfunctional relationship with failure. The problem is two-fold: 1) we have a tendency to avoid failure at all costs and 2) we mistake a temporary lack of success for a permanent state of failure.
The first problem arises when we focus too intently on the possibility of failure. This causes risk aversion and even paralysis. We become petrified to take action — vital action that might take us where we need to go or teach us what we need to know.
And when we come from this place of fear, we create an inner tension that can hinder our efforts. By hesitating to act, we short-circuit the learning process.
The second problem arises when we label things, or people, as a failure. One of the most disempowering things a person could say about themself is, “I am a failure.” It’s a lie, because it supposes that a lack of success now predicts a lack of success in the future. To utter these words is to declare that the state of lack will be persistent. The real tragedy is that often such declarations become self-fulfilling prophecies.
6 Percepts of Failure
Failure is inevitable. It’s how you fail that counts.
If we overvalue not failing, then we will set low bars for ourselves. And the ensuing victory will be a hollow one.
Clearly, setting low standards is a maladaptive behavior (and the trouble is, much of this may occur unconsciously). Striving for a difficult goal often brings out our best.
Peter Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline, tells the story of one basketball player who gave himself a rating on a scale of 1 to 100 after every game. The player never achieved a score above 65. Some might call that a failure, but in fact, Bill Russell led the Boston Celtics to eleven championships. Senge concluded, “it was the striving for that standard that made him arguably the best basketball player ever.” Well, that was before Jordan, but you get his point.
If we want to accomplish something great, we need to take the paradoxical tack of embracing failure. As Thomas J. Watson says, “If you want to succeed, double your failure rate.”
Failure is a powerful teacher.
Employers are almost always looking for new hires with experience. A fancy education isn’t enough. Employers know that when someone has been striving to accomplish something over a period of time, they most likely have seen and overcome a number of obstacles. The value of experience lies in the process of addressing problems, dealing with the unexpected, and being creative on the fly. These experiences sharpen the individual’s ability to predict problems and improve their responsiveness when a problem is encountered.
Classroom education and learning from reading are shallow substitutes for having navigating troubled waters.
Senge tells us that failure gives us insight into our own “inadequate pictures of current reality, about strategies that didn’t work as expected, about the clarity of the vision.”
Learning to fail fast creates a competitive advantage.
We’ve seen that failure is unavoidable and even desirable. Competitive advantage lies not in avoiding failure, but rather in responding to it. The rider will fall off the horse. It is the speed with which she gets up that counts. It is how quickly one integrates the lessons from failure that makes the difference.
Companies who embrace the beta mode are masters at failing fast. Beta is a term for a product that is still in test mode. Some product creators, such as software companies, release beta versions of their products to customers while creating expectations that bugs are likely. The advantage is that the customers get the new version in their hands quicker, sometimes at a dramatic discount. In exchange, the customers become product testers; their feedback is incorporated into subsequent versions of the product.
The beta mode elevates failing fast to a high art.
To put failure in the proper context, adopt an abundance mindset.
An abundance mindset is about operating from the assumption that everything in the universe is always for us. When we come from that perspective, we see the positive side of things. Apparent failures or setbacks become benevolent learning opportunities.
In contrast, a scarcity mindset causes us to focus our energy in the wrong place. As Jen Sincero explains, “Trying to protect yourself from your fears protects you from experiencing a fully evolved and juicy life.” When our protections become disabling they have outlived their usefulness.
“If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.” — Rush
Being overly concerned with failure paralyzes us. We are so afraid of choosing incorrectly, we end up not deciding, which is synonymous with choosing the default option. But when we choose the default circumstances, when we fail to act, we deprive ourselves of the clarity and confidence that comes from taking action. We can’t error-proof our decision-making process, but we can increase the odds that we will learn something by choosing to act.
This reminds me of something my Decision Science professor said in business school. “How many of you have never missed an airplane,” he asked. I proudly raised my hand. “Then you’re arriving at the airport too early,” he concluded. He was right; by being risk averse, I was wasting a lot of time hanging out at airports.
Winners use failure to build confidence.
It’s kind of paradoxical, but failure and obstacles create invaluable resilience. They say that hindsight is always 20/20 vision, but we only truly develop insightful hindsight when we’ve struggled and/or failed. When we succeed we don’t necessarily gain insight into all the ways things could have gone wrong. We might not have a deep appreciation for how we created our victory and therefore our chances of recreating that victory might be low.
I hope you’ll allow me to indulge in another basketball example. As a alum, I love my Duke Blue Devils men’s basketball team. However, when Duke enters March Madness with a particularly strong win-loss record, I always feel a little nervous. This is often a sign that they’ve had a dominant season, but haven’t had a lot of experience playing from behind, rallying, adjusting to a team that has their number. Those high win teams always seem to be the ones that falter in the tournament. They are missing the resilience that comes from having to bounce back from a loss.
resilience | rəˈzilyəns
- the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness:
- the ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape; elasticity
I don’t know about you, but I value resilience over a previous success. Resilience makes us feel like future success is more likely whereas a previous success may simply leave us feeling lucky. We can only know our resilience when we’ve had the experience of being stretched out of shape. Knowing that we can restore ourselves breeds confidence.
The path of the hero is littered with failure.
I like to write fiction and so I’m a student of the craft of writing and literature. A fundamental element of fiction is that the character undergoes transformation through the course of the story. This is known as the arc. As writers, we are constantly being exhorted to make things difficult for our main character.
If you were the character in someone’s novel, wouldn’t it be refreshing to have the roadmap? To know ahead of time that you would be confronted with a series of carefully constructed challenges, each of which would teach you small lessons? To know that you were going to bring all that acquired knowledge to bear at the climax of the story, your eventual triumph? Wouldn’t it be great to have the reassurance that if you haven’t yet met your triumph, that it only means that the story is not over?
OK, it’s true that sometimes stories are tragedies, yes. But wouldn’t your life be better if you operated under the assumption that you are on that Hero’s Journey? That every setback was just part of the life curriculum that was preparing you for the ultimate triumph?
Lee, Geddy & Alex Lifeson. Freewill.
Senge, Peter M. The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization. The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Sincero, Jen. You are a Badass at Making Money. Penguin Group.
I’m a mindset coach for entrepreneurs and creatives who find that the old ways of bigger, faster, more are no longer satisfying. Instead, they favor simpler, smarter, better. They’re looking for creative and sustainable responses to the increasingly chaotic world around them. I help them shift their perspective and tap the power of their own wisdom to unveil new ways to thrive in these complex times. If you’re interested in one to one coaching please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or check out my services at kiraswanson.com/services/.