Why You Must Feel Free to Fail If You Want a Successful Life

photo courtesy of shutter stock.com/DirkErcken
photo courtesy of shutter stock.com/DirkErcken

I grew up in a fairly traditional religious family.  We took life pretty seriously—not in the sense of being morose or pessimistic; I had a very happy and positive childhood—but more in the sense of always wanting to do your best, to try to get and give the best out of life and not just float along.

The downside was that I developed this subtle and not so subtle belief that failure was bad, obedience was good; failure was weakness, success was strength; failure was to be avoided at all costs, success (or “obedience” in our religious circles) was to be pursued religiously.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve seen that I’m not alone in wrestling with this belief.  

We still live in a general culture that tends to put a taboo on failure.  And if you’re a part of a religious culture, you are confronted with a moral value placed upon failure:  failure is wrong, even sinful at times; your highest value is obedience; your ultimate goal is perfection.

But living with this mindset leads to mental and emotional paralysis—we become so afraid of failing, of not doing something perfectly, or of being criticized and judged to be “less than,” that we freeze up and lose our momentum or creativity.  Or we end up playing it safe--stuck inside status quo, floating along with the current of least resistance so we can appear successful.

This is where the tech industry can help us.

Why Failure Is Significant

1.  Failure is seen as a necessary element to success.  If you’re not failing, you’re not doing anything of substance.  You’re not experimenting or growing.

“One of the mottoes that Diego Rodriguez and I use at the Stanford d.school is ‘failure sucks, but instructs.’  We encourage students to learn from the constant stream of small setbacks and successes that are produced by doing things (rather than just talking about what to do).”  Robert Sutton, Professor of Management and Engineering in the Stanford Engineering School

Turns out that failure has become a kind of mantra in the Silicon Valley.  Failure has been normalized.  In fact, and this really astounds me and actually appeals to me, there’s a conference called FailCon “for startup founders to study their own and others’ failures and prepare for success.”  Wow!  Imagine that in the religious world or in the nontech worlds most of us live!

2.  Failure is a Learning Event.  The whole point is that failure is being embraced as an intense form of “hands-on education that when done right enables you to learn quickly and grow.”

3.  Failure signals growth.  Their paradigm is that innovation mandates failure.  A 100% success rate implies that you’re not doing anything new at all—you’re not growing or developing.  You’re stagnating.  And in the tech world, stagnation is death, sure obsolescence—anathema to success.

How To Change Your Mental Framework For Failure

Imagine having this mental framework in our lives every day.  Could you live with this?  Would it be acceptable to you?

1.  Move from judgment to permission.  Our challenge is that we tend to place so many moral judgments on failure, especially in the religious realm, that we never give ourselves or each other permission to fail.

And consequently, we never grow.

Growth, in any part of biological life, implies a dying and a letting go and what appears as “failing”.

Remember the caterpillar?  When it is in the cocoon, the caterpillar’s body completely disintegrates.

Now to the average observer, that would certainly look like failure of gargantuan proportion.  All the work it has taken to get to the caterpillar stage has now gone down the tube, it would seem.

And yet, out of the “ashes” of that disintegration emerges the butterfly.  It has used that major “loss” to rebuild itself.  It’s designed to experience disintegration as a prelude to it’s final form.

In reality, it’s not a loss or failure at all.  It’s a natural part of the process we call metamorphosis or growth.  It’s an inherent element in it’s natural development.

2.  Growth implies change--be willing to fail.  Significantly, the word “metamorphosis” is the New Testament Greek word for conversion, spiritual renewal, spiritual growth and change.

Renewal, personal growth and development, mandate “loss” and even what would appear to be “failure.”  Are you willing?

3.  Turn failure into a learning event.  So how is your relationship with failure?  Are you afraid of it?  Are you dead set against it?  Are you at war with it?  Are you ashamed of it?

Maybe it’s time you make friends with failure.  Maybe you need to reframe it’s role in your life.  Maybe you need to redefine what that word truly means for you.  Maybe you actually need to give yourself and others permission and, dare I say it, encouragement to fail.

Failure is nothing more than a natural and powerful step of growth and development.  Failure is the golden learning opportunity.  When used as a learning tool, failure is in fact the brass ring.

Research into the necessary elements of success clearly shows that failure is crucial to success.  And what we do with failure determines the quality of our success.  It revolves around what is called "the after event" or "after action review."

Here are three principles the research reveals:

  • After event reviews — whether focused on failure alone or both successes and failures — spark learning. Sure, you already knew that — but it amazes me how many companies don’t have time to stop and think about what they learned, but seem to have the time to keep making the same mistakes over and over and over again.
  • After people succeed at something, it is especially important to have them focus on what things went wrong. They learn more than if they just focus on success (so, don’t just gloat and congratulate yourself about what you did right; focus on what could go even better next time).
  • When failure happens, the most important thing is to have an after event review to provoke sufficiently deep thinking — whether you talk about successes or failures is less important.

So how do we allow failure to serve it’s rightful purpose in our lives?  We need to use it to learn—to learn about ourselves, to learn about what works and what doesn’t, to learn about making peace with our humanity, to learn how to use it to make necessary changes that take us to where we’re meant to go in becoming the people we’re designed to be.

Maybe we need a FailCon for us nontech people.  Imagine going to a conference where people openly and honestly talk about failures and what lessons they’ve learned from them and how they’ve grown from them and what they’re doing differently as a result of them.  That could be amazingly empowering!  A place where we didn’t judge each other for failures but actually celebrated them as tools for personal and group growth.


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