When All Else Fails - Learning From Failure
Updated: Jul 14, 2019
“Failure is not an option" – Gene Kranz
We are taught that from a very young age, failure for many is simply not acceptable. We are introduced to those like Winston Churchill and Gene Kranz where failure for them was NOT an option. There are some cases where understandably, failure is a difference between life or death. However, these are extremes. Often, we take everyday situations to this same extreme when it is unwarranted, sensitive to taking risks for fear of failure. Paralyzed to an extent for fear of failure defining us and our efforts. Learning how to take risks and how to accept and deal with failure is critical to progress, to innovation, to consistent growth.
I was invited to judge a design competition several years ago with other industry peers. We were asked by the professor to be honest and constructive as this was a graduating class getting ready to enter into the workforce. We evaluated each of the projects and as a group, we spoke to each about what we liked, and where we found some challenges. One particular student sat there, stone-faced as we went through our opinions. When we finished, we asked if there were any questions and instead there were tears, lots of tears. After consoling this candidate and reinforcing the positives, we doubled back with the professor who was surprised, indicating that this particular student has received almost perfect marks over the entirety of the program. In other words, this student was never taught to fail.
It isn’t an easy lesson to teach and it is an even harder one to absorb. There is no sugar-coating failure no matter how small, it stings. However, learning to accept it and learn from it are critical to both personal and professional success, so much so that I once recommended that they teach a course on “How to Fail” at a college where I served as a board member. In the meantime, as I struggle with and learn from failure, I will offer my perspective:
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“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” - Winston Churchill
Take a deep breath. Sometimes you just need to step back, even retreat a bit, and take a deep breath. Failure can be painful and much like a physical wound, you need to take the time to heal. Rushing forward too quickly can actually set you back further. I am not talking weeks or months, but often time, stepping away for an hour or even a day can help you regain the perspective that you need to reevaluate and push forward.
That can be tough, especially if you have someone on the sidelines yelling, “YOU FAILED” and freely offering criticism without solutions. But letting those on the sidelines derail your efforts, rushing to judgement, and negating your progress or opportunity to learn will not accomplish anything. Breath, reflect, center yourself and get ready to move forward.
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“Failure is so important. We speak about success all the time. It is the ability to resist failure or use failure that often leads to greater success. I've met people who don't want to try for fear of failing.” - J.K. Rowling
Don’t take it personally…but take it personally. When I am coaching someone who is facing failure, my first words are “don’t take it personally.” Yet, let’s be real for a second. . .it is that very fact that a person takes it personally that often makes them valuable. They own the problem, they own the result, they own the responsibility. In reality, there needs to be that conversation that takes place, either with yourself or with the person that you are coaching that seldom does a failure define you. If anything, it can help refine you if you handle it and learn from it in the appropriate manner, and that is often how you are judged. As leaders, we need to reinforce this balance. That starts both the healing and learning process. As for those who would levy criticism at you without solutions, fairly or unfairly, don’t simply dismiss it. Often times, a valuable insight or lesson can get lost in the delivery. Seek to learn, seek to understand and strengthen your next attempt.
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"My great concern is not whether you have failed, but whether you are content with your failure." - Abraham Lincoln
Look inward first. The “Tasmanian Devil” approach is how I refer to it. The person, who when they run head first into failure, spins out of control, blaming all around them in an almost whipped up frenzy. You get the picture, and likely you have seen the type (maybe you are the type). Often, with many of these same “types”, the blow up and finger pointing is a defense mechanism, an instant reaction which can make the resulting conversation more difficult. Often, they will come around once they have had the time to digest and look at the situation more rationally. Sometimes not.
I find that there is far more credibility when you, as a leader, or simply in your everyday life seek to understand your own impacts on a situation first. Own your space. What decisions did you make, what did you have responsibility for, and in hindsight, what would you do differently? Be open about it, even at the risk of having others point and see “say, it’s his/her fault!”. Take it in stride, and let the stride make you stronger in the process.
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“I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.” - Thomas A. Edison
Study “conflicting data” and don’t rush to judgement. I am amazed at how quickly some people will conduct a quick assessment based on limited information, over-weighted by personal experience, and make a decision to move forward with their reactions based on this myopic point of view. If I am being honest, at times, I am guilty of this myself. I do believe that actions need to be taken quickly, but when you face failure, you are doubling down by not taking the appropriate amount of time to gain valuable insights that can help you better prepare for next time.
The learning from failure, or apparent failure can be invaluable. Think of a scientist or a mathematician, the problem is likely not solved on the first attempt. Often, it is a series of failures and subsequent discoveries that lead to true progress. The same should be the case in our personal and professional lives. If we are more prepared to take risks and evaluate the results regardless of the outcome, we are more likely to make progress with each step we take.
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“Success is most often achieved by those who don’t know that failure is inevitable.” – Coco Chanel
Some take risks without any consideration of failure. Others may fear risk all together based on the unknown. The reality is, you don't know what you don't. Accept what forces are or were outside of your control. This doesn’t mean that you ignore them, just throw your hands up and say “hey, that was outside of my control.” But sometimes a well-planned, well executed strategy can simply miss because of a factor that you couldn’t predict. Or because the target shifted before you could hit it. It is easy to feel sunk during these moments and blame yourself. In order to make progress, you need to differentiate between what was within and outside of your control and think about how to mitigate that beyond your control for next time.
Sometimes leading someone through failure means just listening. I struggle with two qualities that typically are admirable, yet can be a conflict from a leadership perspective. I have a high degree of empathy, and I seek to solve issues that are broken. In my rush to try and make someone feel better about a situation and help them solve it, often times I am actually being counter-productive. Can you truly understand how a person feels about a system failure when you yourself don’t use the system? And suggesting ways that you have fixed problems in the past may have no bearing on what this person is going through. Instead, and this is not easy, simply listening and providing support and coaching may be all the person needs to be able to work through the issue on their own. The benefit? Often times both of you will be stronger for it and by simply listening, you may learn something you didn’t expect.
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“The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.” - Henry Ford
I don’t know if any one is ever truly comfortable with failure, and honestly, I don’t think ever want to be. That “sting” can be a powerful motivator, but only if it motivates you to learn, lean forward, and try again. And again. And again.