Failure Judo: Reframe the Experience

Many times the fear or shame of failure is worse than the failure itself.  By reframing the experience, we can sometimes reduce the fear of failure beforehand.  Applied after the fact, reframing can help us focus on deriving maximum benefit from a shameful or embarrassing failure.  This shift in mindset hinges on our ability to look at an experience not as a do-or-die opportunity to prove our worth, but rather a learning opportunity, or change to stretch ourselves.  If we examine our lives closely, there are many more opportunities to learn than there are truly critical situations in which our future depends on our success.  It’s true — not everything can be a learning opportunity.  But we can learn to shift our mindset away from the “everything is critical” view that naturally comes to many of us, allowing ourselves the freedom and space to learn and grow through our experiences and especially our failures.

Martin Luther King, Jr. on Death.

Death is not a period that ends the great sentence of life, but a comma that punctuates it to more lofty significance. 
-- Martin Luther King, Jr., Eulogy for the Martyred Children

Death is not a period that ends the great sentence of life, but a comma that punctuates it to more lofty significance.
— Martin Luther King, Jr., Eulogy for the Martyred Children

Failure Judo: Manage Loss

Part 3 of the Failure Judo Series.

If you spend a little time researching the strategies and ideas of many of the world’s most successful investors, you will see a pattern emerge.  That pattern isn’t luck, or a nose for great opportunity.  Instead, that pattern is a well-developed system of managing loss or risk.  In other words, some of the world’s greatest investors got to where they are by making sure that when they do fail, they don’t take too big of a hit.

Employing this strategy in your own life is pretty simple.  We shouldn’t be afraid to take risks, but when we do take risks we should do what we can to remove the sting of failure’s consequences.  By doing so, we can save our resources to make more attempts, and we can worry less and focus more on the task at hand.  Here are a couple of ideas to mitigate the risk as you reclaim failure:

1.  Plan ahead.  A good plan looks at what can go right, what can go wrong, and prepares us to deal with both.

2.  Try to study some similar situations where the person failed at the thing you are trying to do.  See how they failed, and also what they did to survive the failure.

3.  Think “insurance”.  You might not be able to buy insurance for everything you want to do in life, but many times there are ways to insure ourselves in the case of loss.  The principle here is to ask, “What can I pay a small amount up front to protect me from a big loss later?”

4.  If you can’t mitigate the risk, then either find a way to be ok with the loss, or find another approach.  Sometimes it’s more important to live to fight another day.

Part 3 of the Failure Judo Series.

Failure Judo: Take Incremental Steps

Part 3 of the Failure Judo Series.

I think it’s pretty normal, when we think about growth in areas that are important to us, to envision bold, big moves.  Sometimes, it’s this image we have of ourselves succeeding in big ways that works against us making changes and moving forward.  The very idea of making big changes, of taking huge risks and failing in that context can prevent us from even trying.

Do we really need to make big moves to grow and progress?  I think the answer is “no”.  In fact, I think making big moves, in many cases, isn’t even the most effective way to make progress.  Take this video by skateboarder Isamu Yamamoto, for example.  

Clearly, the tricks and movements he makes took years to master.  Nobody who watches this routine would believe that the routine was created as a single unit, in its entirety.  Likely, Mr. Yamamoto learned each trick and movement as a singular unit, and created this routine by stringing them all together.  While the things we want to accomplish aren’t always so easily broken down into component parts, with a little thought and planning, we can usually find some ways to “baby step” toward our goals.

The advantage of this, of course, is that if or when we fail, we (1) fail in smaller ways, with (hopefully) smaller drawbacks/consequences, and (2) by focusing on small parts, we can direct our energy to mastering more specific aspects of the problem – just like Mr. Yamamoto.

There are two different approaches to breaking things down into smaller steps or incremental risks.  The first, I’ll call segmentation.  In this approach, we might break down different elements of the challenge and then once mastered independently, we reassemble them into a whole which is much more attainable.  An example of this might be an obstacle course.  If we take the time to practice and learn each obstacle on its own, we have the opportunity to focus our effort and attention on the needs of each one.  Once mastered, we will be more ready to tackle the whole thing.

The second approach to incremental risk could be called iteration or progression.  This is more appropriately used when the pieces of a bigger goal are better or even required to be completed in order, starting at the beginning.  The key to using this strategy is our ability to fail at any point in the progression, and still return to the beginning to start again.  In many cases, this is achieved by lowering the stakes for failure (see Failure Judo: Practice later in this series).  As example of this might be the learning and performance of a piece of music.  While you can rehearse segments of music, there is some value to the continuity and context of an earlier part in learning a later part.  However, to lower the stakes of failure, we might rehearse the piece without any kind of audience, so we can fail without consequence.  More on managing risk tomorrow in Failure Judo: Manage Risk.

Part 3 of the Failure Judo Series.

Failure Judo: Fail on Purpose

Part 2 of the Failure Judo series.


I’m supposed to fail? On purpose?

Why in the world would anyone fail on purpose?

The answer to this can be found in sayings like “Its Bark is worse than its bite.”  The intent of sayings like this is to remind us that often, our fear of an outcome is worse than the outcome.  Unfortunately, the best way of discovering the impact of an outcome is to actually experience it.  On the other hand, however, when we do fail, we often discover that the thing we tried so hard to avoid, which messed with our heads and stole our concentration from the task itself, wasn’t so bad after all.

Now, before you go doing anything crazy, here are a few things to keep in mind:

1. Before you undertake anything, make sure that the consequences of failure aren’t going to be devastating, dangerous, or beyond the scope of what you are willing to accept.  

2. If you can, then take precautions to mitigate risk.  For example, a skateboarder trying a new trick might put on a helmet and protective gear.  A trapeze artist often uses a safety net for training in relative safety.

3. Once you have settled #1 and #2 above, go ahead and fail.  Don’t say you’re going to fail, and then try not to.  Go ahead and fail.  Time and time again, I’ve seen skateboarders who are new to a big ramp climb to the top, and simply slide down on their knees, or drop in on their skateboard and bail.  As soon as they do, they know the limits of the ramp.

By focusing your energy and thoughts on the failure – how it looks and feels, and how you can make it better for yourself – you can free yourself on the next attempt to focus on success.  The legendary Japanese Archer, Awa Kenzo, famously made his students fire at useless targets that were impossible to miss for four years before moving on to real targets.  The point of this exercise was to focus them on the process of shooting.  The placing of the arrow on the string, their grip, posture and so on.  Failing on purpose can have a similar effect — by removing the focus on the end product, we are free to focus on the process of what we are doing, which has the effect of …

…improving the end product.

Read the rest of the Failure Judo series.

Failure Judo: 11 Tools to Make Failure Work for You.

Why “Failure Judo” ?

One of the important tenets of Judo is the following: …resisting a more powerful opponent will result in your defeat, whilst adjusting to and evading your opponent’s attack will cause him to lose his balance, his power will be reduced, and you will defeat him. This can apply whatever the relative values of power, thus making it possible for weaker opponents to beat significantly stronger ones. This is the theory of ju yoku go o seisu.

This idea, that we can use the power of our opponent in our favor, is exactly what we are doing with Failure. While we have learned to avoid failure in the pursuit of success, I am suggesting that we learn to harness failure, and use it for our success.

Reclaiming Failure in our lives and in our work requires more than just good intentions, and more than just the right mindset (although those do help). Having some tools and tactics ready to go then we are confronted with our failures can make the difference between reclaiming our failures and getting beaten by them.

In this series, we’ll look at a number of tactical tools that you can use to convert failures to stepping stones on your journey. For the next 11 days, a new tactic will be posted each day, starting with our first entry:

Visualize Failure

Fail on Purpose

Take Incremental Steps

Manage Loss

Reframe the Experience



Be Meta


Build Community

Take Time to Recover

Failure Judo: Visualize Failure

This is part 1 of the Failure Judo Series.

One tactical approach to reclaiming failure is the use of visualization.  Visualization is a psychological technique used in a range of different high-performance fields, from athletics to surgery.  Essentially, visualization involves a focused, mental rehearsal of something you are about to do.  Many visualization techniques focus on optimum performance, which focus on the feelings and specific actions that will all contribute to an ideal outcome in that situation.  For example, Michael Phelps might sit in the ready room before an Olympic Final in the 200 meter butterfly (hands-down, my favorite Phelps race), his headphones on.  What is likely playing on the movie screen of his mind is a first-person account of exactly what he wants to happen in that race.  At Phelps’ level, it probably includes things like a specific number of kicks underwater, the exact number of strokes in each lap, and how it will feel to touch the wall first.

This type of visualization has ben proven helpful in fine tuning athletic performance, and is helpful in any type of situation when success demands a high level of precision.  However, visualizing the optimum performance is just one approach.  Another way we can use visualization is through the visualization of failure.  Prior to engaging in a task, action or project that is important to you, a natural reaction is to avoid thinking about the worst-case outcomes.  However, think about the possible benefits of engaging in not just considering the possibility of failure, but actually visualizing it.  

If you can, try to spend a few minutes visualizing failure at the task in front of you.  What would it feel like?  What might cause the failure?  How would you respond to it after the fact?  How might you take action after the failure in order to recover and carry on with the work?  The more detailed you can get in your visualization, the more mentally prepared you will be for your task.   This sort of mental preparation can benefit you in a couple of ways:  First, if something does go wrong, you will be ready.  You will know what you need to do, and you won’t be surprised by the failure.  Second, by examining all of the things that could go wrong, you might find yourself acting with more wisdom and better preparation in the first place, allowing you to be more successful in the short term.

Tim Ferriss has written and spoken extensively (  about a process he calls Fear Setting.  This process parallels visualization of fear, but takes it a step further.  It asks questions like “What’s the worst that can happen?”, but also “If the worst happens, what will I do about it?”  This analytical approach to understanding our own fears and failures helps us understand the nature of our fears, but also prepares us by pre-planning our own response in the case of failure.  Whether by Fear Setting or through visualization, lowering the fear level around any potential failure in our future allows us to be present, focus on the task at hand, and act boldly.