Why we fail at failure
Post-It Notes, Corn Flakes, Penicillin, Coca-Cola, and Microwaves. Do you know what they all have in common?
The wisdom of learning from failure is parallel to none, however most of us shy away from it - big time.
Annie Constantinescu, Account Manager If you’re up on your history of inventions (or if you simply looked at the title and put two and two together), you’ll know that they were all made by mistake. Their inventors were trying to create something else, completely missed the mark, and ended up with the famous products we know today. Before you continue on, let’s get one thing straight. No one prefers to fail. People aren’t waking up in the morning on their way to take their first sip of coffee thinking, “today seems like a fantastic day to really drop the ball on something”. As a species, we are programmed to find optimal and convenient solutions that will help us get to where we want to go. Failure is what happens when we step off of the path that we have set out for ourselves. Unfortunately, failure has gotten a bad rep in a majority of industries because it is so easy to take it personally. The identity we adopt from our careers is tied to the successes we achieve along the way – the innovative campaigns we build, the clients we go above and beyond for, or the high-up positions we hold. On the other hand, what we don’t associate with our success are the mistakes – the missed targets, the late implementation dates, or the overspending of budgets. Just like the creators of the inventions listed at the beginning, we also struggle with connecting that our failures in some way or another lead to our triumphs. Why? Mainly because there is a delay in return (it can take years to see the benefits) and also because we’re wired to distance ourselves from failure as opposed to embrace it. Think of it this way. What is your initial reaction when someone challenges your work? Is it warm and fuzzy, or icy and somewhat painful? I’ve seen everything from disengaged passiveness to people snapping into super-defence modes. In those first few seconds when we usually make up our mind about how we’ll react, we can’t see that a mistake will probably make us a better, stronger worker, or that it could teach us a valuable life lesson. At that moment, it’s personal – and that’s the problem. This gut reaction dissuades us from learning from our mistakes and fundamentally embracing the potential it has to offer, especially if the stakes are high. In order to develop an appreciation for the takeaways we need to unlearn the associated stigmas and practice taking a step back to see the big picture (both of which are not easy). There’s really no silver bullet when it comes to making failure less painful – an upset client is still an upset client. What we can do though is embrace it for what it is – a constructive tool that leads to innovation and stronger working cultures. We all have access to it, we just have to learn how to properly use it. As I mentioned earlier, failure is often seen as taking a step off of a path that gets us to our goals. We fail at failure not because we aren't achieving our goals, but because we see the missteps as roadblocks instead of detours. The reality is that unintentionally navigating away from your original course is actually part of the journey and can actually be a huge short cut. Again, no one likes to fail, but if you’re open to learning from it, I promise it’ll be worth it.