This is a guest post I wrote that was featured on Rockstar Finance.
I’ve failed at work. Many times. Definitely more times than I’ve been able to keep track of. However, ask me to walk you through my failures and apart from a few defining ones, I’d be hard pressed to give you any explicit details. It is as if my brain has been hard-wired to the future. I am constantly watching 200 yards ahead of me, identifying what is coming and preparing to handle it. I’m in a perpetual anticipation and reaction mode. However, I wasn’t always like this.
Lifting my sight to see what’s coming has been a gradual evolution that has re-wired my strategic receptors and enabled me to plan better, anticipate better, lead more effectively and motivate my teams to reach common goals, with an understandable and simple explanation of my vision.
These are powerful competencies that nobody taught me to develop. I didn’t attend any classes. I didn’t read any management books about them. Nobody was looking over my shoulder telling me what to do. I learnt them the way things are meant to be learnt. I failed a lot.
I want you to understand the power of failure and learn these things too. How to identify failure, learn from it, harness it and then apply what’ve you’ve learnt to drive you to higher and higher achievements.
But before that, let’s understand a few things about failure and why it is that, more often than not, we fear it.
Some of man’s greatest inventions came out of repeated failure
We all know who invented the telephone, right? If the name of Alexander Graham Bell flashed in your brain, then give yourself a nice pat on back. But did you know that he invented the telephone because of a failure?
Bell and Watson were performing one of their many electrical experiments in June of 1875 and one of the receivers they were using to transmit vibrations from one steel rod to another stopped working. The reed receiver had failed to respond to the electrical current that it was getting from an electric battery. Bell asked Watson to pluck the receiver reed, believing he would solve a problem he thought had occurred. Instead of the tuning rod vibrating, the reed on the receiving end emitted the same sound as the reed that Watson had plucked. That failure set Bell off down a path that eventually gave us the telephone.
Hear about the discovery of Penicillin, arguably one of the greatest medical discoveries of our time? Why? Because it was the first antibiotic that was effective against bacterial infections. Before its discovery there was no effective treatment for the spread of bacterial diseases and its introduction was a revolution and gave birth to the pharmaceutical industry and scores of life saving medicines.
In a rush to get out on his vacation, Fleming left a whole stack of petri dishes dirty on his workstation. Usually they were meticulously cleaned after every use. When he got back from his relaxing time off, all the dishes were covered in bacterial mold, except one. He had effectively identified penicillin and changed the course of the world.
While we don’t have any evidence or stories behind the creation of the wheel, one can only believe it came through trial and error. We had to accept sub optimal products and multiple failures to continuously improve until finally we had something that we could use to transport heavy loads over great distances, which was another invention that changed the course of mankind and the world.
Failure as a tool to create greatness is not only limited to inventors or scientists but it is also a tool we use from a very early age.
How your own failures as a child helped you achieve amazing things
One of the most basic human activities is walking. You might think this is a fairly simple process. Lift foot, put foot out in front of you, put foot down and repeat with the other foot.
While it may appear simple the skill of walking is a complex interplay of appropriate muscle activity, timing, balance and receiving and processing visual clues. It is an essential skill that if we don’t get right we fall down a lot.
If you have small kids, you’ll know where I’m going with this. We don’t get up one day, pull up the nappy tightly and start marching off around the room. It takes many months of trying and failing to get it right. Each time we try something and fail, we adjust the next time around, until finally the delicate balance of muscle usage, timing, coordination and processing the visual clues in our environment come together and we start ambling delicately across the bedroom floor into our excited parent’s arms.
A quick tour of YouTube and the internet today will show you more video footage than you could possibly get through in your lifetime of people doing amazingly complex things. All of those people learnt those things by constantly failing. Not one of them woke up in the morning able to do a triple backflip or a summersault out of the blue.
As children we are acutely aware that we learn through trying and that learning comes with plenty of failure.
So where does it all go wrong? Why is the notion of failure at work and in our lives something we frown on and try to avoid at all costs, when the entirely of our technological, medicinal, physical and other advancements to date probably involved some or other form of failure to achieve them?
Why do we grow to fear failure?
There are many theories that try to outline why we fear failure, but the most widely accepted reason is effectively the very reason we should fail: it is the desire to achieve something. It starts off at home or at school and more often than not in the classes where we learn from books rather than trying. Our parents and our teachers focus on wanting us to get the answers right. Think about your own experience or how you are with your children for a moment.
In the vast majority of cases we probably get reprimanded or we reprimand when there is an error. In most cultures we don’t congratulate and encourage the process of trying – at least in intellectual endeavors, like history or mathematics as examples. The fear of this reprimand drives us to develop a fear of failure.
We see errors as wrong and everything we do and build in the workplace and at home is to avoid the occurrences of errors or failures.
This is noble and, in fact, this is exactly the goal we should have.
Both Bell and Fleming were working to reduce the failures in their work to succeed in developing something amazing. But in contrast to a lot of us, they accepted that failure was a natural part of the advancement of their work.
They understood that failure is an important part of the learning process.
So how can we apply this insight in how we manage and overcome failure in the workplace?
You should now be starting to understand the power of failure as well as our inbuilt fear of it.
The next steps are learning how to identify failure, learn from it, harness it and then apply your learnings to drive you to higher and higher achievements.
The 5 essential steps to turning today’s failure into tomorrow’s success
- Step back and look at what happened
The first step is always the most important and in this example it is no different. In our non-stop world we often brush over failures and move onto the next thing, not even giving it a moment’s notice or the time it deserves.
Imagine if Fleming, on his return from his vacation, seeing the petri dishes covered in bacterial mold, cursed to himself and then quickly cleaned everything up in case his boss came in to reprimand him for his sloppiness? If that had happened the world would definitely be a worse place.
Fleming probably looked at his error, his failure, and critically analyzed it. I’m sure he asked himself why he had not cleaned his dishes, what bacteria he had in them. He probably marveled at how they had grown and started looking to see if he could learn anything from the growth, born out of his error. I wonder what he thought when he saw one of the dishes without bacteria on it?
In any case he stepped back and looked at what he had done and analyzed the consequences of his failure to clean his petri dishes.
Looking at that error in that spreadsheet you missed or that wrong language in the contract you wrote or the wrong part placed into the machine you’re repairing is important.
You need to take a moment to reflect on what you did wrong versus what you should have done.
When we understand the process we undertook in creating the failure, we identify the exact actions and tasks that may need to be corrected when the task or action is repeated in the future. This helps us learn about the things we need to change.
- Identify and accept your role in the failure
Once you’ve taken the time to understand the elements that went into the failure, it is important for the learning to be able to take root that you to identify your part in the failure.
It is easy to blame someone else for the spreadsheet not updating. Maybe it wasn’t written in the process manual, maybe nobody had told you to do it. We naturally search to blame someone or something else as we inherently fear failing.
Doing this does not allow the reasons that lead to the error and the things we need to fix the next time to take root.
You need to identify the part you played and accept that you made a mistake. Accepting makes it personal and when it is personal you are more likely to do something about it.
- Recognize you learn through trying
Earlier you would have read and hopefully understood that great success can come out of failure and maybe you now recognize that most of the things you have learnt in your life came with some or another form of failure before they stuck.
Once we realize and accept this truth, we see each failure as a way to learn and get better at what we do. We see failure as a chance we are given to improve what we are doing.
We realize that by not failing we are not learning and in fact we are stagnating. Through stagnating we never improve and we never advance towards our goals.
In job interviews, I always ask people to explain some of their failures to me and what they’ve learnt from them. I use it as my opportunity to see how people feel about failure. I’m always more impressed by those people that get a bit excited when explaining the failure and what they’ve learnt as it shows they’ve understood the real power behind failing.
- Air it out
Once you’ve understood the hidden power behind failure and how it can accelerate your road to success and once you’ve analyzed your recent failure and your role in it, it is important to talk about it and share it. This is important for a number of reasons.
Not everyone has understood the secret power of failing. Most people still tend to be on the other side of the fence and see failure as a shameful act that should be hidden away, or they might see failure as something they should punish right away.
Talking about the failure, what you’ve learnt from it and how you intend to change things in the future effectively addresses these two cases. By being upfront about the failure and providing a solution, you are owning up to the failure, showing it in a positive light and providing a solution to avoid it happening again.
This approach immediately minimizes the failure and since you are providing a solution, gets the team, your leader, your company focused on the most important part, which is the solution or what can be learnt from the failure. When in this mode, there should be less tendency for blaming. I say less, as given how we are conditioned, for the most part, some blame will probably still occur.
Airing it out has one further advantage. It enables you to see other angles of the process behind the error that you may not have considered, which could afford you more insight into what you can learn or change and also allows others to learn from it.
Fleming spoke about his failure/discovery right away and, in fact, it took many years of further work by himself and others before Penicillin was finally developed.
- Take action right away and don’t dwell on it
As Fleming took action right away, so should you. Taking action right away is best, as if you stall and put it off, you’ll probably soon start losing details of what went into the failure in the first place. Your role in the failure might also start to get hazy and soon you might find yourself making assumptions as to the causes and your role in it.
If you get to this stage, then it is too late to learn anything anymore. Your golden opportunity to improve has evaporated like that cold ice block on a hot day.
The goal of stepping back and analyzing what happened is to learn how to improve. Not doing it when the events are still clear in your mind defeats the purpose.
You may have noticed that a lot of these actions are intended to impact the future. That is on purpose as the past no longer exists. The failure is gone and there is nothing you can do to change it anymore. You can learn from it, you can adapt, and you can improve. From the failure comes a better future.
Dwelling on the failure and not focusing on the future causes you to focus on the negative aspects of the failure rather than the positive aspects of learning and improving. So, the faster you move on and start implementing the things you identified as ways to avoid the failure in the future, the better for you and your morale.
Bringing it all back together again
Failure is an essential way for us to learn. When we learn to see the positive aspects in failure, we learn to no longer fear it and we learn that it brings with it the ability to get better. We see it for what it is: an amazing opportunity to drive ourselves to higher and better achievements.
The steps above will help you on the journey to harnessing your failures, addressing them and using them to improve what you do.
When you start identifying all those things you can improve from your actions in the past, you start lifting your head a little more, analyzing the things that are coming and adjusting your actions to ensure the best possible outcomes.
This is the power of learning from your failures.
This is the process that helps you re-wire your strategic receptors and enables you to plan better, anticipate better and lead more effectively.
The more you look forward, the better you become at explaining the future and the more you do that, the more you’re able to harness the tools to drive your teams and yourself to better and better outcomes.