Failure feels like a gut wrenching, stomach curdling, humiliating experience. We want to crawl under a stone and not re-emerge until everyone has forgotten our very existence. We feel it acutely, it rings a death knoll on our self-esteem, knocks another chip off our crumbling confidence.
And yet, within it lies a kernel of hope. Because if we can bring ourselves to look closely at the failure, to dig deeply, and unravel its layers we will find something that we can learn from. And in that learning we build something better, create something new, move forward again at a higher level. Those who become very successful are even able to say that they are grateful for their failures. It made them stronger, more resilient, more creative, more adaptable, more persistent. Failure helps us grow.
“Success consists of going from failure to failure without any loss of enthusiasm” Winston Churchill
The sooner you can start failing the better; get used to it early on, learn to learn from it. Before long you stop even thinking of it as failure or disappointment and you start to see it as another adaptation phase, a readjustment, a retuning, a pit-stop for a wheel change.
I met a woman at a drinks party who told me she was seeing a psychotherapist; she was terribly depressed after a major life event but her recovery had been knocked back by something that had happened to her recently that had shaken her to her core. She told me that for the first time in her life she had failed, at something that she had always been brilliant at. I raised my champagne glass “Congratulations!” She looked at me aghast. I continued “I bet you have lived your life in terror of that happening?” “I wasn’t allowed to fail.” she replied. “So, now you know that when you failed, the world didn’t explode and you didn’t die, that must be a relief?” “But I musn’t fail.” “It happens to us all at some point.” “Not me.” “Even you.” “Actually I didn’t work as hard as I could have. I just thought I’d nail it. It was just the next thing to do in my career. I hadn’t realized I wanted it so much.” “Where does that leave you now?” “I’m going to take a bit of time out. Then focus on it properly, give myself another chance.” In the space of a few minutes her perception of her failure had turned on its head. She was still disappointed but less angry with herself. She learned that she had taken success for granted and she realized she could learn from her failure. I could see she had taken a little step towards recovery.
“We learn wisdom from failure much more than from success. We often discover what will do, by finding out what will not do; and probably he who never made a mistake never made a discovery”Samuel Smiles, The Lives Of George And Robert Stephenson
And you can’t learn from other people’s failures to avoid the pitfalls. There are many books promising the Ultimate Steps to Success, what to do and what not to do. But in truth, we have to make our own mistakes, trip over our own tails and fall flat on our faces, in order to work out how to pick ourselves up, shift our approach and try again. The Lean Start Up Principle works on this idea. You try something, see how it works, how it is received, find out the problems, fix them, make adjustments, build up a little more, get feedback, adjust, push forward, assess, fine-tune, grow etc. It is a never-ending process. There is no Nirvana moment that you reach where you lie back and bask in the glory of success. Life and business alike are organic processes that need the world to respond and interact with them. The world is constantly changing and cantankerous, and so its responses to you, change too. What worked yesterday won’t necessarily work tomorrow. You have to be creative, receptive, adaptable. When something stops working, or something new is criticized or worse, ignored, don’t see this failure as disaster but merely as feedback to point to what you need to do next. Failure calls for thought, observation, consideration, analysis and then reinvigorated energy and action.
When a relationship fails, there is the time for sorrow and then comes the time to pick up the pieces and start over. Unless you want a repeat failure in the next relationship you know you have to look back a little, learn a lot, and put on a new coat of determination and resolve to not make the same mistakes again. It is the same in all areas of our lives; it is our ability to honestly appraise ourselves, that keeps us humans moving forward in an upwardly direction. To be continuously evolving in a positive way we must reflect on the outcomes of our decisions and act with discipline to correct our errors.
One of the measures of entrepreneurial success is when a business is still around after four years. Here are some facts on startups:
25 percent fail in the first year.
36 percent have failed after the second year.
44 percent have failed after the third year.
Even with blood, sweat and tears, they still fail. And this is NORMAL. It is what happens. You may not have the Dragon’s Den brigade shouting you out with a big Thumbs Down but you know when the proverbial s*** has hit the fan. All hell has broken loose, you’re standing on the edge of the abyss but you can’t just brush it off and say well, that’s my life over, I may as well go jump into my grave now. You have to get back in the ring; you have to reboot. If you believe in Evolution, then you’ll know why we are no longer apes. We have evolved because we got banjaxed enough times for our brains to decide they’d had enough, and that it’s time for a change. Incremental shifts, over long periods of time, but sure enough eventually most of us are able to walk tall, not have to shave our entire bodies and have developed more delicate knuckles. We can also make decisions on what it is good for us and what isn’t, and act accordingly. Ditch the glue-sniffing and practice the piano more. For example.
Of course there are ways to minimize the impact of failure and to turn it into a useful and creative thinking tool. It is important to understand your strengths, loves, skills and to acknowledge your weaknesses. Get help from people who are good at the things that you aren’t. Regularly appraise where you’re at, measure it against what you know, learn up on what you don’t know, recognize early when you need to make adjustments, keep looking, observing, analyzing and acting on feedback and your own intuition. Lay out your assumptions against what you have accomplished and lessons learned. Constantly incorporate what you have learned into your decisions and actions. Accept failure, learn from it and move on. Some of the best things rise Phoenix-like from the ashes of seeming disaster.
Need help bouncing back from failure? Work with a Creative Thinking Coach and learn how to build on failure to create a life well lived. Email me on Lou@createlab.co.uk
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