In school we were asked to answer questions and take tests. There were right and wrong answers, passing and failing grades. Because we’re a product of our past experiences, we took this same framework into our adult experiences. We have goals and we judge ourselves on whether or not we can achieve our goals. Succeed or fail. Good or bad. Don’t make a mistake; you might anger or disappoint others, or disappoint yourself. We then take a mistake or a failure and morph it into lack of confidence, lack of self-esteem, or feelings of not being good enough. Whoa! That’s a dark hole. Let’s not go there.
Even though it’s hard to change the paradigm after all these years, it’s a worthwhile thing to do for the sake of all the years yet to come. So going forward, let’s have the attitude that there is no failure, only feedback. Thomas Edison tested different materials for the inside of a light bulb. Ten thousand times he failed before he got the one that worked. He called each failed attempt an "option eliminated." What a great perspective to have.
Mistakes give us feedback. Feedback shows us if we are getting closer to the solution we seek. It helps us shape whether or not we’re headed in the right direction. Do you remember the children’s game where an object is hidden? The others tell him he’s getting "hotter" when he gets closer and "colder" when he’s getting farther away. What we tend to call failure is really a feedback mechanism. If you use your experiences for learning, if you’re "hotter" or "colder" to a preferred outcome, you can get to success quicker and easier. All of your failures should leave you better equipped to succeed the next time.
Failure breaks your pattern. We all develop habits and patterns that are created when things work. So we do these same things again and again. We use these patterns every day to communicate, to eat, to work, to have relationships, essentially to function in our daily lives. But then something doesn’t work and we experience failure. After the defeat you’re much more likely to rethink everything and start anew. This allows us the opportunity to try something new and to discover something better…possibly new habits and patterns that will work even better for us. Henry Ford said that "failure is the opportunity to begin again, more intelligently."
What do penicillin, America, champagne, Post-it notes and Viagra all have in common? They are all the result of failures which gave rise to innovation. Sir Alexander Fleming was doing an experiment that "failed" only to discover that the penicillin mold was killing harmful bacteria. Columbus failed when he set out to find a new route to India. He found America instead. Champagne was invented by a monk called Dom Perignon when a bottle of wine accidentally had a secondary fermentation. 3M invented glue that was a failure – it did not stick. But it became the basis for the Post-it note, which was a huge success. Scientists at Pfizer tested a new drug called Viagra to relieve high blood pressure. Men in the test group reported that it was a failure at stopping high blood pressure but it had a beneficial side effect…and Viagra became one of the most successful failures of all time.
Entrepreneur’s embrace the phrase coined by the CEO of the design firm IDEO: "Fail often in order to succeed earlier." Hewlett Packard cofounder Bill Hewlett said HP needed to make 100 small bets on products to identify six that could be breakthroughs. Failure can be quite useful as long as you learn from it.
You need to try many things. Some will fail and some will succeed. If you are afraid to fail, you don’t try any at all and that keeps you stuck and stagnant. You are not learning. One of the CEOs in my circle wants his people to fail, because it means they are trying new things. And if they are trying things and some things fail, it means they are also having some successes.
So rather than fearing failure, our new paradigm should be to embrace failure as a learning mechanism on the way to success.
How do you view failure? How does your organization view failure?