Reclaiming failure is about owning failure – making failure work for us instead of being something to fear or avoid. By understanding how failure works, and talking through tactics for changing our relationship with failure, we can learn faster, grow more, and achieve things we might not have even attempted before.
The fairly recent popularity of books like Angela Duckworth’s Grit (@angeladuckw)and Carol Dweck’s Mindset (@mindsetworks) reflects our collective desire to be boot-strappy, strong people who can make it through tough things, and grow, change and be better. The optimism found in these volumes is inspirational for sure – and we need grit, and a growth mindset to be successful in life.
However, just hanging in there and believing that you can change (I’d add those up to equal something that’s roughly like “perseverance”) isn’t enough to turn failure into something truly useful. Those are both super valuable things to have in your toolset, and may likely be necessary components of reclaiming failure in our lives and work. However, there’s at least one more thing we need to bring to the table.
Mindfulness is what connects us to our failures. It’s what brings progress to the iterations of our life. Mindfulness is what helps us to recognize the gap between where we are (our failure) and where we want to be (the goal of our next attempt), and provides direction for the change that we believe is possible. So Grit, plus a Growth Mindset, plus the Mindfulness to see our own shortcomings in the light of day equals the ability to fail, own it an make progress as a result, propelling us forward toward better versions of ourselves.
A recent article in Research Digest, titled Spending More Time On Your Hobbies Can Boost Confidence At Work — If They Are Sufficiently Different From Your Job describes a research finding where people who tried hobbies that were qualitatively different than their main jobs experienced a boost in confidence which was also accompanied by increased performance at work. Sounds cool, right?
At first blush, one might assume that the difference was a result of the expansion of skills, the gaining of new abilities. However, if you read the research itself, you will discover that the increase in confidence (self-efficacy) was positively related to one of two conditions: Pursuits that were serious but unrelated to the main job, or not serious and related to the day job. The article doesn’t explain why these conditions both positively affect confidence, while serious and similar pursuits had the opposite effect, but I see something they do have in common.
In both cases, a person might be braver in taking risks with their new pursuit, being willing to risk failure to a higher degree.
If people are willing to risk failure, they try things – they go big, and they might even focus more on the task at hand, without worrying so much what people will think, or how the failure might make them look. The lessons here:
Try something new. Make it different from your norm, but take it seriously. It will be good for you.
Take a moment and reflect on your mindset when you are trying that new thing. How can you capture that, or at least part of it, and bring it back to your main thing? If you can master that, then your main thing can benefit from the same kind of bold action your new hobby did.
If we reach back into our college Psychology 1A class memories, we will probably recall the name Piaget. If we really paid attention, then we might remember that his work was very connected with human (mostly child) development and learning. If you got an A in the class, or perhaps if you majored in Psychology, you might even be able to conjure up a couple of terms related to his work.
In this case, the terms I’m referring to are assimilation and accommodation. Both of these terms relate to how we, as humans, develop and build our mental models of how the world works. If I can summarize, Piaget’s theory says that as we encounter information about our world, one of two things happens: Either the information fits with our current mental model, and it is assimilated into our framework, or it does not fit with our model in which case we accommodate the new information by altering our mental model to help it fit.
This makes me think of failure, and how we relate to it in our everyday lives. If we are mindful in our process, and we can process that failure effectively, then it yields valuable information that we can use to enhance our mental models. The problem is that many times, shame might get the better of us and we run away from the failure or sweep it under the rug. Other times the complexity surrounding the failure overwhelms us and we chalk it up to bad luck or we superstitiously focus on the wrong causal factor. Sometimes, we’re just not paying attention and we carry on with life, possibly repeating the same failure again and again. Whatever the reason, our lack of mindfulness in the face of failure causes us to miss an opportunity to grow the complexity of our mental models and raise our intelligence and abilities to a higher level.
The next time you’re faced with a failure, try a few of these ideas to make it a more useful experience:
Slow down. Take a breath and think about things before moving on.
Try to keep shame out of the equation. Shame is always trying to ruin our failures for us. Everyone fails.
Try to acknowledge all of the factors that contributed to the failure – the ones you can control and the ones you can’t.
Think through some of the alternate scenarios to what actually occurred. What could you have done differently, and how might it have changed the outcome?
Think about what you will do the next time you find yourself in this situation. What could you differently? If the answer is honestly “nothing”, or this situation will never, ever happen again, move on. If you need to learn something, practice something, change something, then make plans to get those things done.
You can’t control everything. You can’t prevent every failure. Heck – you can’t even learn something from every failure. But every failure is worth unpacking. It’s worth reviewing in a mindful, deliberate way in search of the accommodation that we need to make in our mental model in order to learn, grow, and be more successful in the future.
This article on Edsurge.com is an interesting collection of research summary around the idea of “struggle”. While “struggle” and “failure” are not the same thing, there is a significant parallel here. The idea is that growth requires us to reach for something beyond our comfort zone, to attempt something that is at least difficult.
I might push back a little on the idea that “struggle” is the sweet spot for learning and growth to be maximized. Pushing to the point of failure does a few things that simply struggling does not. First, failure inoculates us in some ways against the fear and self-consciousness that make failure such a formidable foe to begin with. Second, I think there is a metaphorical case to be made that pushing yourself to failure versus stopping after a struggle but before failure is a little like a weightlifter who stops short of their absolute limit during a workout – the gains are present, but less than those realized by the lifter who pushes through until they simply can’t.Third, if we never risk failure, we never have the confidence of knowing our own limits. This limits our confidence when the stakes are high, and also handicaps our ability to understand our own growth as those boundaries change.
There are times when it’s appropriate to stop short of failure. I think the key is making a habit of being mindful of what each situation calls for, what our purpose is, and understanding the risks of potential failure as well as how they might be mitigated. The point is not to fail for failure’s sake – we all fail quite enough already. The point is to understand the role of failure in our lives, and how we might use it as a tool for our own growth.
As you leave the decade of the 2010s, it’s natural to find yourself in a reflective mood, recapping the successes and less-than-successful moments of the last decade. Like many do this time of year, you might even be considering ways to improve yourself in the coming year, or decade. New Year’s Resolutions, as a pronouncement or public practice, seem to be out of style in recent years. However, if you’re like me (and most humans), you probably can’t help but think of the turnover of years in terms of what you might do better next time around the sun. And if that’s the case – if you are, in fact, pondering acts of self improvement, let me make a friendly suggestion to you:
That’s it. Commit to failure in your personal and professional life, on a greater scale, with more frequency and even more enthusiasm if you can muster it. Failure is one of the most powerful growth and change producing tools we have at our disposal. It is also one of the most under-appreciated.
Commit in 2020 to putting yourself out there, to leaving your comfort zone and the safety of your expertise, and trying something you aren’t good at. Growing new expertise requires it. Commit to looking silly, to feeling out of place, and to maybe even stretching yourself. Expanding your perspective requires it. This year, try on a new role, a new persona, or take on a new responsibility. Your personal growth requires it. For those in your life, extend the grace – allow them to try new things, to reach for and fail to grasp, to risk the unknown with your unconditional support. Your relationships require it. In your workplace, create an atmosphere where those you lead can fail, knowing that you support their learning, their creativity, and the expansion of their skills as a result. Your leadership requires it.
You don’t have to eat healthy, quit smoking, or go to the gym every day in 2020. All you have to do is embrace failure in a new way. If you want to make this year a year of growth, all you have to do is fail more. For support in your failure journey, follow http://www.reclaimingfailure.com – Have a great year!
Here at the end of 2019, folks are naturally reflecting on the last decade, reviewing the good and the bad. In this spirit of “end of the decade reflection”, Gizmodo, a blog I frequent, just released two articles. They are titled, “The Worst and Most Disappointing Gadgets of the Decade” and “The Most Innovative Gadgets of the Decade”. As a lover of technology and gadgets, I read these articles with great interest, a little short-term nostalgia, and plenty of my own opinions.
3D and curved televisions (2010) AMD Bulldozer (2011) Sony Tablet P (2011) Cannon EOS M (2012) Nintendo Wii U (2012) Google Nexus Q (2012) Lytro (2012) Microsoft Surface RT (2012) Google Glass (2013) Modular phones (2013) Apple Mac Pro (2013) Amazon Fire Phone (2014) Microsoft Band (2014) Apple Macbook (2015) Nokia Lumina (2015) Samsung Gear VR (2015) Blackberry Priv (2015) Samsung Note 7 (2016) LG Watch Sport (2017) Apple Homepod (2018)
You may or may not notice, but several companies had items on both lists. In some cases, companies had multiple items on both. Apple was the most frequently seen on both lists, with four items on the Innovative list, and three on the Disappointing list. Other companies that had products on both lists included Nintendo, Microsoft, Google, Samsung, Sony, Nokia, and Amazon. All of these companies had either even numbers on both lists or a positive ratio, except Microsoft (2 bad, 1 good). Now, these articles are far from scientific but I do think this “data” does echo the assertion that in order for innovation to happen, there is a certain level of risk involved. If we don’t risk, we may fail less. However, we will also limit the amount of innovation that happens.
Looking at the “Innovative” list, there is also strong evidence that innovation might not happen without iteration. How many of these products are not the first version of the product line? The iPhone 4 (and X), Apple Watch 4, Google Nexus 4, DJI Phantom 3, Fitbit Charge 2 and others, for a total of 15 of the 24 products on the list. Innovation doesn’t need to appear out of the blue, on our first try. It often comes after many tries, failures or iterations.
Looking at these lists, reading about these successes and failures, one could glean all sorts of information about business, technology trends (would you just look at the number of portable and wearable devices on these lists?) and the like. However, in the context of failure, I think the message is pretty clear: If you want to innovate, you have to be willing to risk failure. If you want to innovate big, then the failure risk requirement is equally big.
“… the only thing we have to fear is… fear itself.”
These famous words came near the beginning of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s inaugural address, on March 4, 1933. The United States was suffering the effects of the Great Depression, and it seemed that there was much to be afraid of. These famous words have been repeated by many, and most often without the context of the surrounding words in FDR’s speech. Here’s the full section, for reference:
“So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is…fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
The “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror”… I love that FDR characterized the fear our country felt in that time period using those words. There was some really serious stuff going on, not the least of which was the fact that prohibition had been going on for 13 years at this point, so our country couldn’t even have a drink to soften the blow of the economic disaster everyone was living through. According to FDR, the fear was nameless – people didn’t even really know what their fear was about. It was, unreasoning, and not based in logic or real facts. Finally, according to FDR, it was unjustified. I believe that his point can be best understood within the next few words: “which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” This speech was FDR’s rallying cry to a country that was scared to move forward. Why was there no substance to their fear? Because action is the very thing that helps us defeat fear. Our fear of moving forward is best conquered by… moving forward. I think that it’s no coincidence that just 18 days later, FDR signed the Cullen-Harrison Act, which was a partial repeal of Prohibition in the Unites States. This act allowed the legal sale (and taxation) of beer and light wines. His words upon signing the bill should be equally famous: “I think this would be a good time for a beer.” By the end of the year, the Eighteenth Amendment had been fully repealed. America, fueled by Roosevelt’s words and some liquid courage, still had plenty of work to do, but they began to advance.
Failure is emotionally loaded for many of us. Fear is one of the driving forces making us avoid failure and the embrace of the things that failure brings us. When we are very young, we don’t worry so much about failure, because that fear doesn’t exist for us. We see a button, and we push it without any concern for what might happen. We could be turning on a light, or launching a missile, but we aren’t worried about it. There’s a button, and it needs pushing. We see something that looks neat on the ground? Let’s put it in our mouth! This action-based, fear-free exploration of the world is how kids learn in the earliest years. It’s immediate, powerful, and intrinsically-motivated. The adults in our life, in an attempt to keep us alive, and to keep us from launching missiles (or just changing the channel during their favorite show), intervene in our explorations. This well-intentioned intervention is our first experience with the repercussions of failure. We begin to understand that certain things aren’t cool with our more mature overlords.
As we mature and grow into life, these “corrections” and “consequences” grow from simple and tactical, to complex and social. Our very busy brains take situations we have experienced, and project imagined consequences onto situations that we haven’t, until our fear of embarrassment and shame, disappointing others, or loss of social capital and reputation prevents us from taking too many risks in our life. This is normal, and yet it cripples us – much like the fears that FDR mentions in his speech to the American people.
The reality of this situation is that many times, the actual consequences of failure are less catastrophic than we fear. This is especially true when we take action with an awareness of what failure looks like and how it could happen, and we have a plan for moving forward post-failure. Whatever fear does to us is use our own bodies against us. Fear pushes us into a heightened state where we become ready to act in a reflexive way, to fight for our life or to run away. In the face of fear – especially when it is fear of failure – what we need is to act deliberately and thoughtfully. This sort of action is what allows us to make the most of failure in the short term, and improves our successes in the long term. There are several ways to think through our fears, to process them and step into them in meaningful ways. One of my favorite tactics is visualization – see this article for more on this.
You’ll come to see that a man learns nothing from winning. The act of losing, however, can elicit great wisdom – not least of which is how much more enjoyable it is to win. It’s inevitable to lose now and again. The trick is, not to make a habit of it. – Uncle Henry, A Good Year
This quote comes from one of my favorite sappy movies, A Good Year. It comes at the end of a tennis match in which the main character, Max, loses to his Uncle Henry. Henry, whose own path suggests Max’s own future in the plot, imparts a bit of wisdom on the young boy.
I like everything about the clip, except perhaps the bit about not making a habit of losing. I absolutely think we should make a habit of losing – or more specifically, failing. But in doing so, we should develop our skills in failing in a way that propels us in the direction we want to go.
Failure in a real thing is better than just practicing that thing, if it is possible. Clearly, there are scenarios where practice is a better call, or even the only thing possible. Astronauts may rehearse a spacewalk, because they know that when it comes to failure in the real thing, the negative implications of failure are too great, and they might not be able to control the situation to give themselves another chance. In some cases, this kind of rehearsal has even taken place underwater, in order to give the astronauts some of the factors involved in the real thing, such as impaired movement and a non-breathable environment. In some scenarios, the “real” task is too complex to benefit from a wholistic failure, in which case the deconstruction of the complex task into simpler, smaller chunks makes more sense. However, in this case, I would still recommend that each component of the larger task approximate the “real” thing as closely as possible, and if it can be done, even have some stakes attached.
That said, there are many times in which doing “the thing” is clearly the best way to go, with a few caveats. When we engage in a real activity, we are learning in the best approximation to the real thing, because it is the real thing. We experience the emotional state, the pressure, we fear the consequences, and therefore, we really understand the challenge. Some folks getting into sales put themselves through an exercise of just asking people for things that bear a high risk of rejection. Doing this gets them used to rejection, sure. But more than that, it helps them focus past the rejection on the task at hand. After a while, they see the nuances of human behavior in the sales process. They begin to understand the need to empathize with their mark, to see the human needs that are expressed in the details of their conversation. Malcolm Gladwell has talked about the “10,000 hour rule” – the notion that it takes 10,000 hours of doing something to become an expert at it. How many of those 10,000 hours do you think could be counted as “successful”, if the point of reference is “expert”? Doing something for that long allows someone to see beyond simple success or failure, in the same way that a painter stares at their paints for long enough that they begin to see the slightest differences in the tone and shade of their canvas. In the beginning, our failures are rough. Clumsy, even. After a while, our failures begin to change. They become more sophisticated and advanced. This, by itself, is a demonstration of our growth through the process.
Now, the caveats… “Real” failure as a means of practice often needs some of the reclaiming failure tactics to make it work. I don’t recommend that you practice your parkour skills by going straight to the nearest tall building and trying to run along the edge or jump across to the building next door. (I don’t actually recommend this at all. Totally not safe.) There are two really big tactics that are good to keep in mind when using a real failure scenario as practice: Limit the impact of the failure, and/or scaffold the experience. I’ll go into more detail on these later in tactics, but here’s a quick look at what I mean.
Limiting the impact of the failure is simply mitigating the consequences, or softening the blow should something go wrong. In the world of skateboarding, these concepts show up in some of the work that goes into learning to take on a big ramp. Limiting the negative impact can often take the form of a foam pit. The skateboarder in training will hit the ramp, execute the trick (or not), and land in a nice, soft foam pit, or sometimes on a padded mat.
Scaffolding is just like its similarly-named counterpart in the construction world. Before a building is finished, it is often surrounded by scaffolding. The shape and size approximates the building. It supports the structure, and allows workers easy access, but it is designed to be removed. In the skateboarding example, scaffolding might look like a progression of ramps, going from smaller to large, or practicing the aerial maneuver on a trampoline. There are many ways to use these techniques to move from “practice” and closer to a “real failure” scenario to accelerate learning and growth.
The two minute video posted above is another great story of an athlete who fought through adversity and failure, didn’t give up, and came out on top. I wonder how many people give up just before they have that big breakthrough. Sadly, we will never know…
It’s easy to look at something like this, and misinterpret it as a call to push-push-push, to hustle without stopping – but we need to look deeper. Reclaiming failure is a more mindful process than that. Those who don’t think, who don’t rest and find some quiet, won’t be the ones standing at the end.