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

Practice

Tinker

Be Meta

Discuss

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 (https://tim.blog/2017/05/15/fear-setting/)  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.

Piaget and Failure…

Piaget and Failure

What might he have said about it?

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:

  1. Slow down. Take a breath and think about things before moving on.
  2. Try to keep shame out of the equation. Shame is always trying to ruin our failures for us. Everyone fails.
  3. Try to acknowledge all of the factors that contributed to the failure – the ones you can control and the ones you can’t.
  4. 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?
  5. 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.

Why Failure beats Practice.

Why Failure Beats Practice

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.

Skater Rob Dyrdek flying into his foam pit.
Skater Rob Dyrdek flying into his foam pit.

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.

For more on scaffolding as a learning construct, check out the work of Lev Vygotsky (Zone of Proximal Development), or Bruner’s work on scaffolding, which came a little later.

Reclaiming Failure Tactic: Visualization

Reclaiming Failure Tactic: Visualization

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 (https://tim.blog/2017/05/15/fear-setting/)  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.