Failing Well

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Thomas A. Edison

It’s the other F word: failure. We know intellectually that we learn more from our mistakes than from our successes, but each failure still feels like a kick in the gut. When we fail, we tend to be ashamed. We hide our failures, from ourselves and our bosses, and we don’t talk about them after. We try not to even think about them.

But they creep back into our consciousness, usually between 2:00 and 3:00 in the morning (or so I’ve heard.) Failure brings back all our unpleasant memories and feelings from childhood; we feel terrible about getting it wrong and disappointing authority figures we care about.

Learning to talk productively about failure can make our work relationships stronger, according to Bradley Staats, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan Flagler Business School, author of “Never Stop Learning: Stay Relevant, Reinvent Yourself and Thrive.” Staats suggests that learning how to talk about failures can help you connect with colleagues and even improve your image.

When we project an image of invincibility, we push people away. When we admit to our mistakes, we show vulnerability, which helps people connect to us – they may even like us better for it. If we can get to the point of seeing the benefit (or the humor) in a failure, we show people our strength of character (and may also inspire them to talk about their own failures.)

Something that may help you cope better is realizing that not all failures are alike. In fact, they come in three flavors. Unavoidable failures happen because of something outside our control, something no one could have seen coming. Your big event gets washed out by a tropical storm. Your vendor or customer suddenly goes out of business. There’s almost no way to prepare for the unpredictable, but you can insure you have backup plans in place and a resilient business model so one big loss isn’t catastrophic.

Preventable failures are the ones we feel worst about. Preventable failures come from something we didn’t do well enough. We skimp on resources; we don’t think the plan through thoroughly; we underestimate time, talent, or other factors needed for success. In hindsight, we can see where we went wrong, and hopefully, learn from our mistakes.

Intelligent failures may sound like a contradiction in terms, but they’re actually the best kind of failure. Smart companies try to fail fast and fail smart as they test new ideas or products. It’s the concept behind a trial period or a test market; find out whether the idea has potential before you invest more resources. If it fails, learn what you can, tweak the plan and move on. Intelligent failures are contained and controlled; they’re designed as a learning process. “It didn’t work, but we know more now” is a great outcome.

There are really only two  bad outcomes from any kind of failure. One is that you start feeling like you’re a failure. There’s a world of difference between failing and being a failure. The measure of a person is not how many times she falls down, but how many times she gets up.

The second bad outcome is letting a failure stop you from trying again. Giving up is the only sure way to guarantee you won’t succeed; anything else gives you a fighting chance. If you quit, you’ll never know how close you were to success. Robert Kiyosaki said: “Winners are not afraid of losing. But losers are. Failure is part of the process of success. People who avoid failure also avoid success.”

Get out there and make some mistakes. Do something. Learn something. Lather, rinse, repeat.

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