“I have not failed, I’ve just found ten thousand ways that won’t work.” – Thomas Edison
By definition, failure is the opposite of success. And by that measure, it’s a condition that is definitely desirable to avoid. In fact, the term “fail” and “epic fail” have become Internet memes that represent the worst possible situations and outcomes you can imagine. However, as counterintuitive as it may seem, more learning and good can come from failure and mistakes than from successes. And the fear that comes from desperately trying to avoid mistakes will do more to prevent success than anything.
Think about any success in business and life, and you’ll inevitably conjure up lots of failures and mistakes that led to it. From learning to walk – plenty of falling face first preceded that success – to the iPad. In fact, Steve Jobs embraced failure and celebrated it in his famous commencement speech at Stanford. The key is learning from it, making incremental improvements (“failing forward”, as John C. Maxwell calls it), and maintaining your drive and enthusiasm. As Winston Churchill said, “Success is going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.”
Here are five reasons that failure and mistakes are good.
- First of all, you can only fail if you try to do something – which is a plus, to begin with. And, creativity entails doing something not been done before – which is by definition difficult. There are no instruction manuals, no fool-proof plans. Thus, doing creative or innovative work will likely lead to some failures and mistakes. Ipso facto. Never making mistakes is a sure sign you are not trying new things, pushing yourself and your team, being creative. If you’re not failing, you’re simply not trying hard enough.
- To say you failed means you are likely measuring your results in some way, which is also good. Too often “success” is measured by some vague “we did it and it worked” statement. But failure should be measured in detail. Again, this is good – it means you had specific objectives, and put in place analytics in order to see if you achieved them. Thus, you are approaching your efforts like a scientist – testing, experimenting, reading results, and learning. And now, you can assess what went wrong and why.
- You had the self-awareness and presence of mind to call it a failure. Too often people will hedge and say a failure was “a qualified success”. Or “things went ok”, or “there may have been some problems…” But this type of hedging avoids the point – we did not achieve the success we set out to. By calling a spade a spade, it means you have faced the fact that you did not deliver, you have forgiven yourself, and are prepared to move on.
The key is that you don’t brush it under the rug. The only way to get anything out of it is by addressing it head-on.
- You forced yourself to look back and determine what went wrong and why. This means you’ve moved beyond everyone’s first instinct, which is to blame. And it means you’re open to learning, a wonderful thing. This learning might challenge your assumptions, your in-going hypotheses, your beliefs. And it will likely provide some good direction for next time. Learning the what’s and the why’s of failure is the biggest benefit.
- You formulate your plans for “next time”. “Next time” might be immediate implementation to address early results. Or it might be the next phase of the assignment/project. Or it might simply be “the next time we do something like this”. In any case, be prepared with your new learning in order to “fail forward” next time.
As you can imagine, failure is a great teacher and mentor. Jeff Stibel, Chairman and CEO of Dun & Bradstreet, says he’ll only hire people who fail. He says, “We don’t just encourage risk taking at our offices: we demand failure. If you’re not failing every now and then, you’re probably not advancing.” And going even further, Paul Schoemaker suggests that, at times, you should even deliberately try to make mistakes in order to challenge conventional wisdom.
I know I’ve failed a lot and made lots of mistakes. Small, medium and large. But the one thing that I share with Steve Jobs and Winston Churchill (probably the only thing) is that I won’t ever lose enthusiasm for trying. And I also know that trying too hard to avoid making mistakes is the greatest mistake of all.
What mistakes have you made? How have you learned from your failures?