Why we should embrace, not fear, failure

Recently, a Princeton psychology professor, Johannes Haushofer, tweeted his CV of failures. It included lists of degree programmes he was rejected from, papers that were declined by journals as well as academic positions he didn’t get, research funding he couldn’t secure and fellowships that he failed to join. The purpose of this exercise? To demonstrate that no success story is complete without several chapters about overcoming adversity.

Why we should embrace not fear failure

The honesty of this tweet and its inspirational message saw it going viral and being picked up by various mainstream news publications. “This darn CV of Failures has received way more attention that my entire body of academic work”, Haushofer said. But is the message accurate? Is success intrinsically linked to a history of preceding failures?

“Why do we fall? So that we can learn to pick ourselves up”

One obvious example that almost everyone can relate to of falling and picking ourselves up, is learning how to walk. None of us acquires the skill overnight, it takes failing many times over before we manage to get it right.

As toddlers, we don’t even understand the concept of failure, yet we handle it remarkably well. We fall, we cry, we get up and we go again. It’s somewhat ironic that it isn’t until we have benefited from failure by learning how to walk that we learn much later what failure actually is.

This concept of failing, learning, practising and persevering can be extended to many things we learn in life. Riding a bike. Learning how to swim. Learning how to drive a car. We fail at all of these things until we learn to get them right. These failures contribute immensely to our personal growth and gift us with an extremely valuable asset. Experience.

Doesn’t it stand to reason then, that in our adult lives we need a similar cycle to achieve success? After all, experience is arguably the most crucial factor in our career. Yet we somehow learn to become crippled by fear as we get older. It’s understandable. Failure can be quite brutal.

It often means having to suffer from unfavourable consequences. It has the potential to deteriorate our quality of life if the consequence is economic or just make us feel inadequate and humiliated if the consequence is emotional. Neither are particularly desirable.

Yet, we’re doing failure a disservice by shying away from it. Not only is it an unavoidable part of life. It is an essential part of life. We shouldn’t fear it. We should embrace it. Use it to our advantage. Make it a tool that works for us.

What is failure?

“I knew that when I was 80, I was not going to regret having tried this… I knew that if I failed I wouldn’t regret that. But I knew the one thing I might regret is not ever having tried. And I knew that would haunt me every day” – Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon

Failure can be looked at in two ways. The first is a lack of success. For example, you start a business but for whatever reason, it doesn’t succeed. The second is the neglect of a required action. This means that you don’t launch the business in the first place.

This presents an interesting dilemma – is it better to fail at making the business you’ve launched a success or to fail by never giving the business a chance to succeed because you never started it in the first place?

Most people think that it’s the failure of their actions rather than the failure to take action that they’ll regret more. People recoil in horror at the prospect of having to declare bankruptcy or being rejected by a person they’re attracted to. This fear is paralysing; it makes people abandon their biggest ideas or walk away from their grandest ambitions. It is a failure to take action.

Studies reveal that in the twilight of our lives it is not failure that we regret, but the failure to act. Some of the most original entrepreneurs of our time feel the same fear of failure that the rest of us do. They just respond to it differently. How they differ from the rest of us is that the fear of failing to act or achieve trumps the fear of failing. This enables them to break free of their comfort zone, to go out there and make it happen.

Lessons to be learned from failure

If the key to approaching failure is to channel it into a productive learning curve that will create the roadmap to success, what key lessons do we need to harvest from our failings?

Failure is not a weakness, it’s an opportunity

Many see failure as a sign of weakness. As a result, they’ll try to conceal it, but failure is only a weakness if you let it be. The one way to guarantee that we don’t benefit from failure is to ensure that we do not learn anything from it. That would be a wasted opportunity. A failure signals a gap in knowledge or a poor strategy. By identifying the fundamental reason for failure, we are motivated to go back to the drawing board and fix the problem or mitigate against it in the future.

If you attempted an arduous journey – crossing the dessert or scaling a mountain and you failed the first time, is there strength in quitting? No, that’s allowing failure to beat you. You beat failure by going back to the base of the mountain equipped with the knowledge of why you failed the first time so that you can conquer it the second time around. There is shame in quitting, honour in persevering.

A bad project manager believes that the project is closed once the service or the product is launched. A good project manager understands that one of the most crucial aspects of the project comes post-launch during the lessons learned phase. Failure will give you as many lessons as you’re willing to learn, so use the opportunity to look critically at what worked, what didn’t and why. Embracing failure positively requires a leap of faith, but once you do you’ll understand that fearing failure only holds you back from realising your full potential.

Get a different perspective

“No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it”. Albert Einstein, who failed many times over and was proud of that fact, understood that critical learning isn’t a solo affair. You cannot understand the reasons for your failure through the filter of your own experience. You need feedback from neutral and impartial third parties who will analyse the failure from a different perspective.

By attempting to take on the burden of analysing your failure independently, you’re leaving countless learnings and opportunities on the table that you will miss because your brain can only interpret and evaluate that failure one way. By leveraging constructive criticism from employees, customers and stakeholders, feedback will provide a much broader context about where and why things went wrong.

Pioneering – bigger failures but larger rewards

With original ideas, failure is inevitable because there are no previous templates or blueprints to compare them against. It is harder to see where the challenges and obstacles lie.

Throughout history, the great originals have been the ones who failed the most, because they were the ones who tried the hardest and persisted with the greatest resolve. It took James Dyson 15 years, his life’s savings and 5,126 failed prototypes before he developed one that worked. Reid Hoffman’s online dating network SocialNet flopped before he co-founded LinkedIn. Steve Jobs was forced out of Apple over the failed Apple Lisa computer, Steven Spielberg was rejected from film school three times and Colonel Sanders, the entrepreneur who founded Kentucky Fried Chicken had his recipe rejected more than 1,000 times before it was picked up.

There are numerous ways to fail but only a limited number of ways to succeed. Thomas Edison famously failed at 10,000 prototypes for a lightbulb before getting it right. When he was asked about his failures, he said that he knew “definitively over 9,000 ways that an electric lightbulb will not work”.

Perseverance is key

The American entrepreneur, filmmaker and pilot Howard Hughes was famously involved in two near-fatal crashes when test piloting prototype aircraft. In the spring of 1943, he suffered a severe gash on his head when the Sikorsky S-43 he was flying crashed into Lake Mead killing two of the four fellow passengers onboard.

Three years later, he took the XF-11 military reconnaissance aircraft, which he designed himself and which was built by his own aviation company Hughes Aircraft, on its maiden test flight. Following complications, the plane crashed in a Beverly Hills neighbourhood and Hughes sustained significant injuries including a crushed collar bone, multiple cracked ribs, crushed chest with collapsed left lung, shifting his heart to the right side of the chest cavity, and numerous third-degree burns.

Despite these horrific experiences, Hughes was determined to succeed and continued to design and test pilot aircraft. Some might consider Hughes quite mad, others thought of him as an inspiring example of how drive and ambition can yield pioneering results.

During recovery, Hughes found his hospital bed troublesome, so he designed a new one himself. It was created with the specific purpose of alleviating the pain caused while moving with severe burn injuries and served as a prototype for the modern hospital beds used to this day. Whatever your view on Hughes, the fact remains that perseverance is key to overcoming failure.

Without perseverance, Alan Turing might never have developed the bombe, the machine that cracked the enigma code and helping the Allies to win the Second World War and gave birth to the concept of the computer. Abraham Lincoln might never have succeeded as President having been beaten in eight previous elections and might never have abolished slavery. Andrew Neiman might not have overcome the abuse from conductor Terence Fletcher and given us that spectacular jazz drum solo at the end of Whiplash.

Success is never guaranteed, but without perseverance you never have any chance of achievement.

Reach for the sky

World-class figure skaters fall over more during practice than low-level figure skaters. The reason is that top skaters challenge themselves by attempting jumps that are beyond their scope and which thereby stretch their limitations. They fall often but they learn fast. Shizuka Arakawa of Japan estimates that she endured 20,000 falls as she progressed from a beginner to an Olympic champion.

In contrast, low-level skaters only attempt jumps they know they can make. They never fall but their success is limited and artificial. By refusing to push themselves they’re denying themselves the opportunity to fulfil their true potential and compete on a higher level. Fearing failure hampers your ambition, overcome it and set your goals high.

Knowledge, resilience, growth and experience

Failure brings important first-hand knowledge, helps to build resilience, gives us experience and helps us to grow. Each time you fail, you gain the knowledge of one more avenue that doesn’t work. The more you fail, the more resilient you become because it expels the lofty expectations that success is plain sailing or that success can be achieved overnight. It instead reinforces the truth that success is a struggle that requires the endurance of hardship and effort.

When we fail, we mature and grow. By understanding where we’ve gone wrong, we can put painful, humiliating or disappointing experiences into perspective. The experience of failing is one of life’s great teachers. It alters our frame-of-mind through the induction of pain and forces us to reflect and adapt in order to improve.

Know when to quit

Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. W.F. Fields had a slightly different spin on this, saying: “If at first, you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. No use being a damn fool about it”.

I’ve already addressed how perseverance is key. Perseverance is the refusal to quit by refining an idea when you understand how and why it isn’t working. Perseverance is not being trapped in an endless cycle of repeating the same mistakes over and over again.

The fundamental difference between persevering and knowing when to quit lies in whether you’re learning from your errors and correcting them in order to progress. If you hit an obstacle that you cannot hurdle because the idea or the concept simply doesn’t work, there’s no point wasting any more time on it. It’s a tough judgment call, but one you’re going to have to make.

Never make the same mistake twice

The reason aviation standards dictate aircraft carry black boxes is to ensure that if something goes wrong, the lessons learned from drawing black box data can be implemented into standard practice. This helps to avert the error being repeated. As a result, the accident rate in 2015 for major airlines was just one crash for every 8.3 million take-offs, making air travel one of the safest forms of transportation in the world.

We have arrived here today from a horrid history of overconfidence that has had tragic consequences. Think about the Titanic and how it was deemed “the unsinkable ship”. This reckless arrogance led to the vessel being underequipped with an insufficient number of lifeboats for the passengers onboard.

By today’s standards, risk assessment coupled with health and safety legislation would have prevented the disaster that Titanic suffered during its ill-fated maiden voyage. Titanic’s failure led to a fundamental overhaul of international maritime law and safety practices. Making a mistake is a lesson learned. Making the same mistake twice is negligent, lazy or incompetent.

Don’t take it personally and remain positive

It is widely accepted by scientists that the brain is endlessly adaptable and dynamic. Neuroplasticity means that our thoughts can change the structure and function of the brain. We can actually rewire our brain through the power of positive thinking. So if you’re a glass half empty kinda person, there’s no real scientific reason why you can’t change that mentality. Force yourself to stop thinking about reasons why you can’t do something and start thinking about reasons why you can. Biology will take care of the rest.

There are thousands of examples of the world’s greatest entrepreneurs failing so don’t be discouraged. Failure just exposes factors that you couldn’t possibly have known or had control over when you first started out. Failure is just information, use it accordingly. Respond to it positively. Use it as a trampoline, a stepping stone, a highway to success or an arena to test new ideas, methods and approaches. It makes life sweeter anyway. We have a better appreciation of success if we’ve been bashed with the bat of failure a few times on our way up the ladder.

Allow space for happy accidents

John Lennon once said, “Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans”.

It’s often assumed that failure is due to a lack of coherent planning. While planning is, of course, important, there are any number of reasons why a plan might fail. Planning can also be your enemy, too much of it kills the spontaneity required for creativity where ideas can thrive.

Take the film industry, for example, many of the most iconic scenes in silver screen history have all been happy accidents. Robert De Niro’s “You talkin’ to me” exchange with his mirror in Taxi Driver. Harrison Ford responding to a villain’s fancy swordplay in Raiders of the Lost Ark by shooting him. Robert Shaw’s USS Indianapolis monologue in Jaws. Jack Nicholson’s “Here’s Johnny!” line in The Shining.

Some filmmakers are so convinced the creative power of improvisation that they do away with a script altogether, they just turn up on set and give their actors free license to work their magic. If the dynamic doesn’t work, the director yells cut, the footage ends up on the editing room floor and the actors go again.

How does this translate to the world of business? If a script is a business plan, your workforce are your actors and your CEO is your director, there’s no reason why the same creative magic shouldn’t be infused into the creative process of delivering a work project. While project scope is fundamental, don’t be afraid to go off-piste if the natural evolution of the critical path pulls in that direction.

Alternatively, if your failings give rise to an entirely new opportunity, seize it. Take, for example, the chemist Spencer Silver. His failure to produce a glue solution that was sufficiently sticky led to the launch of the post-it note. When American Engineer Percy Spender experimented with a device to detect enemy planes during WW2 that accidentally melted the candy bar in his pocket, this eventually led to the invention of the microwave oven. Ensure that you run a tight ship when you launch a project but allow some breathing room for innovation and that all important creative spark.

Use feedback throughout the development process

A project without a proper business case often speculates what the end user wants or needs without consulting them directly. The project is developed isolated from any constructive user feedback. When it’s launched, everyone crosses their fingers and hopes for the best. Ironically, this method of approaching a product launch is partly due to a subconscious fear of failure.

Start-ups in Silicon Valley have developed a different approach that values feedback throughout the product development stage. Minimum Viable Product (MVP) consists of the most basic version of an idea with only one or two core features. It is then beta tested to see immediately how consumers respond. If the response is poor and it is apparent that the public is disinterested, then the project is cut early mitigating against cost and time lost invested in a product or service otherwise doomed to fail.

The MVP model gets stronger by failure. It drops the features that don’t work and focuses resources on improving the features that the end users want to see more of. Individuals and institutions that have the resilience and flexibility to embrace failure, learn the lessons it delivers and adapt accordingly will survive. Those that shy away from failure will not.

Once you’ve embraced failure, you no longer fear it

We will fail in life—possibly many times. And that’s okay. Embracing failure in a positive way allows you to move past the negatives and the disappointments and change your mindset from “failure is bad” to “failure can be good and here’s how to make it a tool that works for me”.


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