Embracing Failure — Are You Good At It?

28 May
2012

One thing that I’ve been thinking quite a bit about lately is the concept of failure. It’s funny how when an idea sticks with you, it starts to become a prism through which you see the world, coloring conversations and thoughts.

While the concept of learning from failure is nothing new, I do not think that most of us (myself included) are fully capturing the learning opportunities that come from it. On the surface, it may not seem so, given how fashionable the “learn from failure” are. But when you dig deeper, it’s evident how paralyzing the fear of failure really is.

There’s a subtle difference between explaining away failure vs. really internalizing it and having the courage to share it. The former is done in front of your boss, the latter is done in front of your peers and (most importantly) yourself. It’s natural to feel uncomfortable with failure, as we want to show ourselves in the best light to move our careers forward. Also, no one likes a whiner and a failure, and since what we put out there is carefully curated, oftentimes we miss valuable opportunities to share and learn from our deepest (and often most meaningful) failures.

Why do I say that we aren’t sharing failure enough? I’m seeing too many success stories vs. failure stories. Another thing that tips me off is the sheer number of very similar mistakes. If you make a mistake and don’t share what went wrong, someone else will make that mistake — and that’s what I’m seeing a lot of. If you don’t fully internalize the learning yourself, you yourself will probably make that same mistake again.

While most of us profess to be risk-takers — and most companies claim to have risk-taking cultures — while in reality we are quite risk-averse. You can’t fail or succeed without taking a risk, and our reward systems are largely not set up to favor risk taking. We map taking risks to failure, and we are understandably uncomfortable with failure. And so we go to incredible lengths to make sure we evaluate and reevaluate decisions, going into analysis paralysis — often at the cost of action. We are hesitant to share anything half-baked, and so we go down these paths of perfecting our ideas until they are ready for consumption. Given how quickly the world moves, this may be a luxury most of us can’t afford. When we do fail, the natural tendency is to rationalize and explain it away.

Failure only becomes learning when we admit the failure, extract a lesson from it, and are willing to do things differently in the future. By and large, as change speeds up around us, we feel insecure about our ability to keep up. We cling on to certain things that we’ve always done, holding on to them as beacons of safety and stability. I don’t think we change fast enough. I think there are a few reasons for that: our egos are too closely embedded in the way we do things, and the systems we work with don’t encourage change fast enough.

The concept of MVP (minimal viable product for those who aren’t familiar) becomes extremely powerful in expediting learning from failure, and can and should be applied to subjects beyond product development. When we are able to communicate an idea, we can fail quickly and with fewer complications — and before too much of our resources and self-esteem become embroiled in the project. This way, we can test our initial theories and won’t have to go through mind-numbing and agonizing “what if?” scenarios, slowing down progress. This way, we can also guard against going too far and not being able to extricate ourselves form career-damaging failure. We can get early indicators of success or failure and take steps to change what we are doing. Unfortunately, we are largely aren’t wired that way. We write extensive plans and create strategic and tactical initiatives, which we feel compelled to finish for the fear of appearing “flaky”. We need to continuously evaluate and rid ourselves of physical and emotional baggage tied to these “sunk costs.” The rate of change that’s commonplace in business (and life in general) today doesn’t allow us to stick with things that don’t work.

I think we haven’t yet matured the use of social media to become a true learning tool. The temptation is to always look good, claim thought leadership, rank for keywords, impress people with our brilliance and awesomeness. But there’s a whole other side to social media — the side that helps us share and learn, leveraging each other’s experiences, so that we don’t have to collectively make the same mistakes over and over.

But perhaps public social media channels will never be the true learning opportunities, because we will never be able to tell the full story publicly — especially now, as our online expressions become our virtual resumes. Perhaps, to that end, we’ll be spending more time in smaller, purpose-built (and often private) communities. I know I have started doing that — looking to practitioner communities to ask and answer the tough questions together, while using public social media to learn what’s happening in the broader world. What has your experience been? Have you been using the power of social media to go deeper vs. publishing status updates?

Photo source: ktpupp

  • http://www.unionsquaresoftware.com/ Molly Desre

    I consider myself as a risk taker. Once I started something, I just don’t want to leave it without finishing it. I guess it’s one of the best traits I find in me.

  • Sueyoung

    I really resonate with the theme here of deeply held attitudes to ‘failure’. Even use of that word to describe an essential part of our learning from our experience, say a great deal about our social culture. 

    Much of my work is in the area of leadership development. In this I work with groups, teams and individuals. As part of a leadership development programme, part of the design is often  in small peer learning groups where individuals bring to the group issues / current challenges they are facing. In the atmosphere of trust that develops in that community the greatest contribution and gain is where individuals feel able to share their uncertainties, anxieties, perspectives, and experiences including stressful ‘failure’ experiences. The relief alone from feeling able to express things that people have felt inhibited from expressing is in itself powerfully releasing and enabling. The group then supports them in thinking through and finding their own answers. The result is fresh thinking and insights, often the most powerful being the shift from a sense of personal failure to a more realistic perspective and renewed energy and focus for action going forwards.

    Looking forwards I believe organisations enabling these kinds of small learning groups as a mainstream ‘normal’ activity will massively raise levels of productivity, engagement and innovation from their employees. Re-framing ‘failure’ as ‘learning’ is a key cultural shift much needed in todays’ organisations

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