Embracing Failure

How many of us can say we look forward to a good failure? Or ever get a hankering to know what you tried just didn’t work, or that you said the wrong thing to the wrong person? I’m betting both of those questions sound pretty ridiculous, but I am not so sure that they’re as far out in left field as they may seem.

Our culture extols success and curses failure. How many books have you seen on the business bestseller lists with the word “Success” in them? Probably so many that it would seem odd for it not to be there. Have you seen many “Failure” titles, though? There’s power in failure, despite the fact that we’ve built it into a big scary monster that keeps us all running scared.

Unforutnately, our cultural and individual fear of failure tends to obscure the fact that failure is a fantastic learning experience. Thomas Edison, after all, famously said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Each time he tried a new idea only to discover that it didn’t work, he had more information to help him put together the pieces that would work. This is no small thing, and odds are good that you and I would still be living by candlelight had Edison not been so willing to fail and learn from his failures, and had the persistence to keep going. (Some things, like learning to drive a manual-shift car, can really only be learned by failing over and over until the process makes sense.)

The critical thing about failure is that if we’re not willing to fail, we stifle our learning and our creativity. If we won’t audition for the band/choir/play/cheerleading team/sport of our choice, how will we ever get to play? If we don’t make the cut, we can ask what we need to improve so that we’re better prepared next time, but standing back because we’re afraid to fail just keeps us boxed into a very sad place in our psyches, and means that our excellent ideas—and even our mediocre ideas that could be polished into excellence—stay trapped inside our heads. As a result, we tell ourselves that we’re not creative and that we never have any good ideas despite a complete lack of supporting evidence. We condemn ourselves as failures before we even start. Most of us would never tell our children, “Don’t bother to try. If you fail, you’ll just feel rotten and it’s not worth it.” And yet, we do it to ourselves all the time.

The irony here, of course, is that failure is a critical part of the creative process. Only first-time authors with no experience in writing think they can produce a perfect book or story in the very first draft. Experienced authors always go back to see what works, what doesn’t, and what needs to be changed so the work can be even better. (Most authors will tell you that 90% of writing is in the revision.) The process is similar for other art forms. It’s not a stretch at all to say that all creativity is a trial-and error process, and that the only way to get where you’re going is to figure out—and learn from—what isn’t working along the way.

Fortunately, we’re starting to wake up to the power of failure, and beginning to embrace it as a vital part of creativity. Back in December, Jeff Stibel, Chairman and CEO of Dun & Bradstreet Credibility Corp., posted a Harvard Business Review blog called “Why I Hire People Who Fail,” in which he says,

The failure wall was part of our efforts to create a company culture where employees can take risks without fear of reprisal…We don’t just encourage risk taking at our offices: we demand failure. If you’re not failing every now and then, you’re probably not advancing. Mistakes are the predecessors to both innovation and success, so it is important to celebrate mistakes as a central component of any culture. This kind of culture can only be created by example—it won’t work if it’s forced or contrived.

I’m also intrigued by the efforts at Wimbledon High School, a girls’ school in the UK, to encourage students to take risks and learn from their failures. Their upcoming “Failure Week” will encounter their own failures and those of respected figures who failed but picked up and moved on. The BBC asked the school’s headmistress why this week would be important:

“The girls need to learn how to fail well—and how to get over it and cope with it,” she said. “Fear of failing can be really crippling and stop the girls doing things they really want to do. The pupils are hugely successful but can sometimes overreact to failure even though it can sometimes be enormously beneficial to them. We want them to be brave—to have courage in the classroom,” she added.

I think they’re on the right track. I hope to see some follow-up information on how the week goes, and I would love to see something similar adopted in the US. But first, we have to break through the idea that success is always achievable on its own, without any failures at all, and that failing is a sign that we’re unworthy somehow. If you agree with me, take a look at your own failures. What have you learned from them? Where did they make a positive difference in your life? In what ways did they lead you down a path that’s been vital to your life without you realizing it at the time? Which ones would you never go back to correct now that you have some distance and can see their impact in your life? And how can you encourage others to see failure as an agent of change and creativity rather than a sign that they’re worthless and never should have bothered in the first place?

I’d love to hear what you discover in this process!

2 thoughts on “Embracing Failure”

  1. Long ago a sales trainer introduced himself with an unusual resume. I no longer recall the details, but it went something like:

    * flunked 8th grade
    * expelled during repeat of 8th grade
    * flunked 9th grade
    * graduated high school at 20 in bottom tenth of class
    * fired by first employer after six months
    * fired by second employer after six weeks
    * failed in sole-proprietor business after six years
    * wised up
    * got hired by national firm with great mentoring
    * studied how to develop sales people
    * designed award-winning sales training course

    … which you’re now IN!

    It’s also instructive to look at Abraham Lincoln’s resume, which includes failing at several different careers, including the law, before becoming President and signing the emancipation proclamation.

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