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.
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:
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.
No human ever became interesting by not failing. The more you fail and recover and improve, the better you are as a person. Ever meet someone who’s ALWAYS had EVERYTHING work out for them with ZERO struggle? They usually have the depth of a puddle. Or they don’t exist.
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.