We have books, blogs, and well-spoken folks telling us that the key to success is failure. We have catchy phrases (“fail early, fail often”), and endless parables pointing to failure as the unpleasant yet necessary precursor to success: JK Rowling and her repeated attempts to get the first Harry Potter book published, or the huge list of games that Rovio released before Angry Birds launched (get it?). Yet all too often in the same breath that we laud the necessity of failure, we malign it by placing all the attention on success as the only measurable outcome worth celebrating. Failure? Sure. But only so we can step on it on the way to success, say we went there, and then wipe it off our soles.
I attend talk after talk celebrating successes and touting the benefits of learning from your mistakes. But almost never do I attend talks that simply talk about failures– that celebrate the really human side of what it is that we do. Yet it is those talks that have taught me the most, validated me the most, encouraged me the most. Don’t failures, as learning experiences and as a crucial part of everyone’s journey, deserve celebration on their own merits? Why do failures only gain value when they lead to huge success?
Even the sign post in the picture above has “success” and “failure” pointing in different directions.
Our society seems to separate True Success–success built on failures–from True Failure– failure without success. Yet if failures are worthless unless they are punctuated by success, then success is reduced to the only thing of value in this equation.
That’s a mistake.
We tell our loved ones and mentees that failure is necessary, yet we live in a world that doesn’t prepare anyone for that necessity. We have a grade-school system, a post-secondary system and even a professional system that prides relative position on a Bell curve, rewarding failure not with reflection and learning, but with a drop in relative status. We reward risk unfairly, over-celebrating successes instead of the risk-taking itself, and over-punishing failure, criticising the very bravery that gave rise to the risk-taking in the first place.
As human beings, we’re training ourselves to avoid failure, even if it is a good learning experience, because almost everything else in life slaps our hands for trying. If your failures don’t result in success, then your failures are Real Failures.
It’s scary. And instead of helping one another face that risk and realize that failure is not the end of the world. Most of us cower ourselves in the face of it. What if our failures aren’t good enough?
The risk-reward system in society is broken and we need to fix it.
While I suspect the problem is universal, I think the solution is varied and complex, and depends on the domain. Yes there is right and wrong in some contexts, and the engineers that built my bridges had better be right. But these “hard skills” are not what I’m talking about– it’s the soft, squishy other stuff.
Consider project management. The art of project management is not in your tools or rules, but in the soft skills and the ability to assess a situation for the people within it (including yourself) and the complex interplay that naturally arises. It’s in knowing who you are and how you fit into that puzzle (read this excellent piece by Rami Ismail and if you have time then read this too) , establishing a trajectory and space for personal growth while responding to a need/problem.
It’s also in the things that cause us to dig deep, embracing our mistakes and things that aren’t perfect about ourselves. It’s in understanding that sometimes, despite your best efforts, you still fail and that doesn’t make you a bad person.
For every single failure, there is something to learn. If you disagree, you are probably still caught up in the sting of that failure or not yet ready to learn from your mistakes. And that’s OK. Believe me, I understand. I’ve spent more time in that state than I like to remember. Part of how I get out of that fugue is by having a support structure in place to remind myself that I’m not a failure, but that only my idea or plan or whatever failed.
That’s a huge difference.
The other part is that I celebrate taking the chance in the first place. And then I spend time forcing myself to consider all the good things that have and could come out of this failure that would not have happened had I succeeded. It takes practice, but you do get better at it.
There are reasons for every failure– not in a point-and-blame sense, but rather in the recognition that you are part of a much larger system of people with goals and ideas and perceptions and experiences. Those who seek to understand other perspectives, as well as seek to understand where their own perspectives come from and the forces at work on them are the true leaders in life.
We’ve all had situations where we’ve reacted strongly, only to later realize we were reacting on the basis of incomplete information. The problem is your model is always going to be incomplete. If we had all the information, all the time, then all situations would reduce to an equation– a right or wrong situation for which a simple ‘X’ or checkmark would suffice.
Instead, embrace this incompleteness as it opens us to a life of endless learning, and a world full of rich and wonderful people and ideas. It removes from us the pressure of always being right, and frees us to not only fail, but to truly explore. Most importantly, it asserts our respective places as valid and valuable contributors in society.
The measure of a person comes not in their successes, but how they react in the face of failure.
And that is a lesson worth celebrating.