Our actions in the event of failure often betray a mindset that failure is fatal. When our mistakes stare us in the face, we find it so upsetting that we miss out on the primary benefit of failing: the chance to get over our preconceptions and revisit the problem with a stronger, smarter approach. Success comes through fixing our mistakes rather than always getting things right the first time.
When it comes to failing, our reputations tend to be our worst enemies. When things start going wrong, we immediately seek ways to “save face.” No one likes looking silly, foolish, or incompetent. Many of us resort to denying our faults, chasing our losses, or even treating our mistakes as “no big deal.” These reactions generally inhibit our ability to adapt.
We like to take credit for our successes, attributing them to internal factors such as our effort, skills, or past experiences. Failure, though, is something we don’t like to acknowledge. Research has shown that we are more likely to blame failures on external factors, such as the difficulty of the task or our team members. We believe that we cannot admit that we could possibly have done something incorrectly. It is hard to take responsibility for our mistakes. For admitting that a mistake requires us to challenge a status quo of our own making and right the wrong.
We also chase our losses. We are so anxious not to highlight a decision we regret that we end up causing more damage while trying to erase it. Think of a poker player who has just lost some money. Generally, he will make risker bets that usual in a hasty attempt to regain the lost money and “erase” the mistake. On the other hand, we may try to convince ourselves that ourselves that the mistake has little weight, bundling our losses with our gains or finding some way to reinterpret our failures as successes.
An attitude that views failure as fatal to success becomes a behavior that is unwilling to aid others. We don’t want to fail again! We want to get it right, and that seems less guaranteed if we don’t hold all the cards. Thankfully, at the Failure Institute, there are successful people around willing to publicly share their failures and why they consistently seek to make more mistakes. These individuals wholeheartedly embrace the truth that “to err is human.” Everyone makes mistakes, messes up, blunders and stumbles.
Instead of living in denial, we should embrace our failures and learn from them. After all, why flee from the inevitable? It is much easier to accept that human beings are prone to error, and then educate ourselves on how to avoid future errors. Otherwise, when we do not experience, remember, track, or retain mistakes as features of our inner landscape, failure drops like a bomb and can have detrimental effects in our personal and professional lives, simply because we are unprepared to meet it.
In our complex world, we must use adaptive, experimental approaches to succeed. The more complicated and elusive our problems, the more effective trial and error becomes. We can’t begin to predict whether our “great idea” will actually sink or swim until it’s out there. When we embrace failure, we embrace innovation, risk, and creativity. We free ourselves to try new things and spread our wings. In fact, failure is a resource that can, and should, be managed. We should not only not shy away from it, but by seeking failure, we will be more likely to find success.
Let’s cast a wide net and expose ourselves to lots of different ideas and approaches, on the grounds that failure is common. Assuming that not many of us operate a nuclear power plant for a living, we can probably afford to infuse a bit more freedom and flexibility into our workdays. Let’s give ourselves permission to test out a few crazy ideas every now and then; to find experimental approaches where there’s lots to learn; to live by the motto, “Fail often, fail fast, and fail forward.”