Reframing Failure

by Chris Cloud

Failure is Not the Enemy

If there’s one thing we know, it’s that we’re going to fail at something.

There are all kinds of different failures. There’s massive, catastrophic failure, and then there’s micro-failure. People fail classes, fail at sports, fail at dating relationships. There’s business failure. There’s failure to live up to our values.

Failure might be small, like a bad kick of the ball when the net was wide open, or it might be as big as going out of business. Sometimes business partnerships fail. Sometimes a product launch fails, or your great idea never gets off the ground. Failure is all around us, and it’s definitely a part of life.

There’s a tendency, especially in business, to think of failure as the enemy.

But what if we looked at failure a different way? What if saw it as a necessary element of the growth process?

Choose Your Failure-related Goal

Facebook’s motto during their early days was “move fast and break things.”

As a startup, they knew they had to innovate quickly, and a necessary component of rapid innovation is a high likelihood of failure. They knew they were going to break things. But even when things broke, they knew they didn’t want to be paralyzed by failure, or the fear of failure. They wanted to get up quickly when they hit the dirt, wanted to learn from it, and keep moving onto the next thing.

I’ve been a lifelong snowboarder. As I’ve got ready to hit the slopes around the world, I’ve often overheard beginners brag to each other. They’ll say something like, “I went out yesterday and didn’t fall even once!”

Some people’s goal is not to fall. 

If you know anything about skiing or snowboarding though, it’s not that hard to get to ‘not falling’. What’s really hard is to get better, to do increasingly technical things like jumps, tricks, and advanced techniques on various types of challenging terrain.

These folks who simply are trying to avoid falling will never be great at the sport. They’ll just be great at not falling.

I’ve snowboarded with Olympic gold and silver medalists, and guess what? They fall all the time. It’s not because they aren’t any good, but because they are constantly pushing the envelope and trying things that they’ve never done before. Things that are extremely difficult.

Falling is a natural byproduct of progress, and Olympians know that. They don’t see failure as failure. They see it as growth.

It’s not hard to “not fail” if we set the bar low.

Reframing Failure

If you don’t make mistakes, you’re not working on hard enough problems. And that’s a big mistake. – Frank Wilczek, 2004 Nobel Prize winner

Sometimes in entrepreneurial-related ventures, we tend to have the wrong view about failure.

What would happen to our organizations if we stopped being afraid of failure, but instead chose to be afraid of stagnation and ‘low bar’ plateaus? What if we saw failure instead as a necessary component of progress?

I’ve seen people fall off both sides of the wagon on this issue.

Some folks have little concern for failure at all, and as a result they live in a constant state of failing. This is not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about an approach to failure that leads to progress, to forward momentum.

But the other unhelpful reaction can be a complete aversion to failure, an unhealthy fear of it. This is also unhealthy, and can lead to a dangerous paralysis.

I’m not glorifying failure. But I believe we can all use a mental shift. Let’s fail fast, and fail forward. Don’t let the fear of future failure, or the over-analysis of past failure keep you from moving forward. You’ll be better for it.

Success is going from failure to failure with undiminished enthusiasm. – Winston Churchill

In next week’s article we are going to look at a specific tactic for transforming failure into success. 

What about you? Do you think there are certain types of businesses that simply cannot afford to take risks, or cannot afford to “fail” at all? 

Resources for Further Reading and Study

1. Move Fast and Break Things by Jonathan Taplin (Book)

2. Keep a Resume of your Failures by Adam Grant, Wharton Professor (Article)

3. Stop Saying Sorry and Say Thank You Instead by Yao Xiao (Comics with a message)


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