Sounds easy enough, right? It’s the type of advice that doesn’t seem too daunting when you hear it from the mouths of experts.
During the past couple of years, I have been doing my share of failing professionally. Those failures have revealed to me that making failure survivable is more complex that it initially appears.
In May 2011, I walked out the door on the last day of my last corporate HR gig. I vowed then that I would never work for anyone again. I had been committed to the long-term goal of owning and building my own business since before I even graduated from college. The time had finally arrived to meet that goal.
For the next two and a half years, I pursued a variety of consulting paths with limited success. I kept trying and kept failing. But I was committed. My friends and mentors encouraged me. They kept telling me that this cycle of failure was all part of building a business. So I persisted. It was hardest thing I’ve ever done professionally. And it sucked. A lot.
Then, as 2013 began to draw to a close, I began to have a painful realization. All of the failing, despite how much I had learned along the way, had put me in a spot where I had to face the fact that I may not be able to make this business work.
I had spent my career preparing to build this business. And, despite all that, I had failed. FAILED. And it wrecked me. At least for a few days. Then, I decided to let go of my fixation on failing and opened my eyes to new paths.
And something amazing happened. The opportunity of a lifetime appeared. Now, I see that the failures of the past few years had prepared me to succeed today. Perspective I feel I could only have in hindsight.
Along this journey, I learned some things about failure and why it’s so hard to make survivable within our organizations.
- Failure is emotional, not rational. Regardless of how prepared you are or how much support you have, it still feels gross when you fail. If we are to make failure survivable, we have to give people the tools and support to manage the emotional impact of failure. We need to get better at talking about it. We need to provide more encouragement.
- People have baggage with the word “fail.” I vividly remember the first time I said to my wife that I had failed. Her protective instinct kicked in and she immediately responded, “You didn’t fail.” To which I responded, “Yes, I did. I’m not a failure, but I definitely failed. I set out to build a successful company and I didn’t meet that goal.” We are so afraid of the word “fail,” we don’t even like to use it. To make failure survivable, we have to make sure we are clear on what failure means so we can be less afraid. Simply put, failing is not meeting a goal or objective. That’s not so scary.
- Failure is the best teacher, but we don’t treat it that way. I learned more in the past two and a half years than maybe during any other time of my professional life. But, I had incentive to learn because if I didn’t, my business would have folded much sooner. Failure is feedback. That feedback needs to be understood and used to determine what to do next. Most organizations are lazy about this process. When we fail, we spend our energy on covering our ass rather than learning. This has to change if failure is to be survivable. Failure must be treated as a powerful learning experience.
- People judge you not by your failures, but by what you do next. One lesson that continues to be reinforced throughout my life is this: Other people don’t spend nearly as much time thinking about you as you think they do. My story will be defined by what’s next, not by what’s behind me. We need to help people learn to use failure as fuel for action. We need to train people to be like sharks—never stop moving. Be defined by what you do next. Failure is never fatal when you keep moving.
Failure is critical to the success and growth of our organizations. But, it is not to be taken too lightly when humans are involved. Failure is an emotional experience. Once we acknowledge it as such, we can begin to create an environment to make it not only survivable, but to turn it into fuel for innovation and culture.