Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Failure is the Path to Success

Typically my blog entries are focused on marketing, but the idea of failure has been weighing heavily on me lately. Every time I turn around, it seems, there is some new quote about failure making an appearance. It came up not too long ago in the copy of “The Happiness Project” I’m reading. One of the tweeters I follow, @AllisonMaslon, posted something about failure. All these messages keep talking about how failure is the road to success. Two of the messages that resonated with me particularly are:

  • Courage is realizing that each failure merely brings you that one step closer to eventual success.
  • If you aren’t failing, you aren’t trying hard enough.

I read these and yet I can’t forget that in today’s culture failure carries a negative connotation – but primarily only with adults. Children are permitted failure, and the message given to them is clearly “Failure is expected and will lead to success.” As with every generality, there are exceptions: the abused child or the child expected to live up to someone else’s expectations, but we must remember – these are exceptions.

Think back to when you were small and learning something new. One of my experiences was learning to hit a baseball. I missed and missed and missed and yet there was always an adult there encouraging me with phrases like “No one gets it right the first time” or “Don’t worry, you’ll hit it the next time” or “Keep trying, everyone fails at first”. My dad, to paraphrase him, gave new meaning to the phrase “It’s not how many times you fall down that matters; it’s how many times you get up” when learning to ride a bicycle. The message is very clear – and the complete antithesis to the message delivered to adults in today’s culture. It is truer, I think, in the work environment than elsewhere.

When was the last time you made a mistake at work undertaking a new task and someone said, “I know this is the first time you’ve tried this, so just give it another go”? It’s more likely you walked away wondering what sort of negative impact your failure had on your boss’s perception of you. You may even have been reprimanded in some way for failing to get the new task right the first time.

As a general rule, people hustle and hustle and keep their heads down, hoping to just get by. Standing out is dangerous. Fear of failure is the stuff of mediocrity and an organization that implements a culture of fear is slitting its own throat. Empowerment to fail is the hallmark of a nonthreatening environment and an environment that recognizes the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

I see this type of activity every day and I wonder how anything new is ever innovated in corporate environments. Entrepreneurial environments are completely different animals. You can’t compare the two. It’s a rare corporate environment that doesn’t have processes in place designed, intentionally or unintentionally, to keep people from proposing and implementing new ideas, processes or strategies.

If we return to the process of our childhood when failures were accepted and encouraged as something to get past, rather than something to be reprimanded for, how much more improvement and innovation would there be in companies? Suddenly the person who steps up and makes a suggestion for improvement is rewarded, even if the idea isn’t initially successful or practical for implementation. Even in that failure, that person has been a success because perhaps that person inspired the next person to step up and his/her idea IS successful and saves the company time or money.

Or how about looking at the reason for the failure? It is our nature to focus on weaknesses rather than strengths. We traditionally seek to compensate for perceived weaknesses rather than learning to excel using our strengths. Perhaps the failure is the result of a person with a talent for strategy and seeing the forest rather than the trees having found him/herself in a position where the need is for details and seeing the trees rather than the forest. Move that person to the right position and suddenly excellence and success is the norm for that person.

The road to success IS paved by failure, in many shapes and forms. Though society would like to enforce its definitions upon each individual, we need to remember that they are personal definitions and individual benchmarks. One person’s failure may be another’s success.

If you want to be a success, it takes courage – be willing to step up and fail.


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