For most high achievers, the thought of failing at anything is paralyzing, demoralizing, and terrifying. Especially failing in public.
These fears lead us to risk little. Find out how you can counteract these fears and turn failure into gain.
Welcome to Throwback Thursday, where we take a look at a past Agile Lifestyle feature that’s still as timely and relevant as ever. This article has been completely updated and expanded with the latest research and information.
Failure is only the opportunity to begin again more intelligently.
— Henry Ford
If you’re going to fail, fail hard, fail well.
— Richard Branson
Megan McArdle tells this story in The Up Side of Down:
There is a famous story of a rich old man being interviewed by a young striver, who asks him for the secret of his success. “Good judgment,” says the magnate.
His eager young follower dutifully scribbles this down, then looks at him expectantly, “and how do you get good judgment?”
“Experience!” says our terse tycoon.
“And how do you get experience?”
Look behind the story of any successful person and you will find a litany of failures. James Dyson’s 5,125 prototypes. Michael Jordan not making the high school varsity team. Colonel Sanders’s many failed business ventures before starting Kentucky Fried Chicken.
If success and the development of good judgment are so strongly tied to learning from failure, as in the parable above, then why aren’t we more inclined to seek failure?
What are we so afraid of?
What Is Failure, Exactly?
The term “failure” can mean different things to different people. I want to be clear about what we’re talking about here.
First, let’s distinguish failure from a mistake or an error. A mistake is doing something wrong that you know was wrong at the time. An error is a result of the inherent fuzziness of translating what’s in your head to reality—attempting to draw a cat and winding up with something that looks more like a fox.
There are beneficial mistakes and errors too, so you shouldn’t go through life being deathly afraid of them either. But neither mistakes nor errors are the types of failures we’re interested in.
Failure is an undesired or unexpected result that doesn’t conform to your hoped-for outcome.
Notice that failures don’t necessarily have to be negative, just unexpected. Ben Horowitz’s cloud-based service Loudcloud “failed,” but the cloud software that it ran on, Opsware, succeeded as a separate venture.
In short, failure is about testing a hypothesis. Some will be right, some will be wrong. There may be more wrong hypotheses than right ones.
The most important insight of agile lifestyle design is to treat your life as a series of experiments.
Above all else, this requires that you give yourself permission to fail.
Whatever evolutionary advantage this fear once had, it no longer applies to modern life. To iterate rapidly and find the best outcome, you will need to be able to try and discard a great many options before you get to a few key purposes you can dedicate your life to.
But what do you do after you fail?
How do you move on from your failures?
Let’s assume that you’ve given a new project, a new hobby, or a new habit your best effort. And still you fail.
4 Important Realizations to Make in Order to Get Past Failure
1. Self-acceptance beats self-criticism
According to a Journal of Consumer Research study published August of 2014, authors Soo Kim and David Gal of Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management show that practicing self-acceptance reduces the likelihood of future self-destructive actions.
“Consider the person who has just realized that they are poorly prepared financially for retirement,” write Kim and Gal. “They might either go out and buy something expensive or start binge eating or drinking as a way to avoid dealing with their problems. We introduce the idea that practicing self-acceptance is a more effective alternative to this type of self-destructive behavior.”
Self-critical behavior can lead to a negative cycle of blame and low self-worth.
Self-acceptance can lead to increased desire to improve.
In one of their experiments, some volunteers were asked to read a passage about self-acceptance. They were then asked to choose either a luxury magazine or the book Power and Influence for Dummies to read. Participants who read the passage were more likely to choose the self-improvement book.
“Unlike self-esteem, self-acceptance that is inherently unconditional may better prepare someone for inevitable failures — ultimately serving as a less volatile alternative for promoting well-being,” say Kim and Gal.
2. You learn from your failures
You probably failed for a reason. Are you taking the right lesson away from your failure?
If the lesson you take away is to not speak up, not try, give up, or stop rocking the boat, there’s a good chance you took away the wrong lesson.
The reason you failed might be that you didn’t care enough to succeed. That’s okay too.
If you tried cooking for the first time, you might realize that you hate the mess it creates. The cooking part is fine, and maybe even fun, but it’s the chopping, peeling, and cleanup that you could do without.
If that’s the case, you can try to isolate the part that you didn’t like and create a path around it. For instance, by buying tomatoes that are already diced, mushrooms that are already sliced, or meat that’s already been seasoned and just needs heat.
The point is to look for silver linings in your failures. A failure can only become a lesson learned if you look for it.
3. Failure can mean freedom
My personal example is my wake-up time. My natural sleep cycle is something like 1 or 2 AM to 9 or 10 AM. That’s a pretty extreme sleep cycle for most people. This makes me a serious night owl (like President Barack Obama) by most definitions.
For the longest time, I felt like something was wrong with me because I wasn’t extroverted or full of energy at 8 or 9 in the morning.
I nearly failed a course in high school because I couldn’t stay awake during the early morning session. It got so bad that the teacher forced me to stand up for the whole period, utterly humiliating me in front of my classmates.
I spent a great deal of effort trying to correct what I perceived as a personal defect. I forced myself to go to sleep sooner, even though I’d still be full of energy and toss and turn. As an adult, I came to rely on enormous amounts of coffee to keep from falling asleep.
But I also noticed that when others were burning out by 2 or 3 PM, I was hitting my stride. I could work effectively late into the night, unlike my comrades.
I ultimately failed at “correcting” my sleep cycle. But in the process I learned that I was stronger at different times in the day. So I focused my work in those parts of my day instead of trying to force energy and wakefulness into my morning.
4. Failure leads to success
Failing is fantastic because you learn what not to do. And the faster you fail, the more quickly you can achieve success.
When you do find something successful for you, that is the time to replicate it. Success builds on success. Pretty soon, you won’t be failing that often because you will have a better process in place, and a better understanding of your tendencies.
When you fail you can have two responses:
- You can dwell on your failure, or
- You can learn, adapt, and iterate.
I hope you see that there isn’t really a choice here.
Trust that the dots will connect in your future.
A version of this article first appeared on July 23, 2012.
Image by comedy_nose.