It is said that failure is a necessary precursor to ultimate success.
Want to make it big in the real world? Fail early, fail fast, fail often, as the saying goes.
Countless success stories are replete with mistakes and obstacles.
Thomas Edison failed over 6,000 times before perfecting the first electrical lightbulb. Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team and missed over 9,000 shots in his career. Oprah Winphrey was fired from an early anchor spot and deemed “unfit for TV”. Lady Gaga was dropped by Island Def Jam Records after only three months.
A failure that results from well-designed and well-intentioned experimentation can be worthy of praise. And regardless of whether failure offers any real value, it’s a common occurrence in our uncertain environment and a natural part of human existence. Creating a purposeful life requires messing up and venturing into the unknown.
While we all want success, it’s not guaranteed. That’s why the ability to recover from setback and move forward is essential. And this starts with embracing, processing, and even benefiting from failure.
It’s easy to see why we fear failures, screw-ups and unknowns when you consider how they are traditionally defined:
Failure: 1. lack of success; failing 2. unsuccessful person or thing. 3. non-performance.
Screw-up: 1. bungle, mess. 2. mismanage a task. 3. thing incorrectly done or thought.
Unknown: 1. not known. 2. unfamiliar.
You can shift your perception and recognize their value (or at least take out the sting) by redefining them as follows:
Failure: 1. the starting line 2. part of process. 3. on the path to success.
Screw-up: 1. sign of innovation. 2. output of dedicated work 3. result of perseverance.
Unknown: 1. creative challenge. 2. new opportunity.
Failures, screw-ups and unknowns help you build resilience and character; give you insights about your work, yourself, and others; enrich your experiences; test your emotional intelligence; and add to your knowledge and skills. To gain the most from them, you could practice the following dos and don’ts on how to respond:
Feel and reflect. Fully experience the emotions that come with failure before you jump to the next thing. You owe it to yourself to process the feelings (e.g. sadness, fear or anger) without getting overly attached to them.
Speeding up and keeping yourself busy can cause you to miss out on vital lessons. To reap the nuggets, reflect and take a close look at what went awry. Did the mistake arise from a well-intentioned error of judgment or just plain carelessness? Reflecting on what didn’t work helps you learn from your mistakes and get on the right path.
Claim appropriate responsibility. Blaming yourself for events that are outside your control or constantly rescuing others signals that you’re taking on too much responsibility.
But step up to the plate when your involvement truly matters. Think about your role in the situation and decide what you can do differently and better, going forward. Acknowledge your limits. Do you need more training? Is your workload too much for you to cover?
Admit and reframe. When you acknowledge your misstep, you free up your energy to refocus on next steps. Get real about what constitutes success – dedicated work and true grit, coupled with mistakes and uncertainty.
Take effective action. Forget the word “try.” Set out specific action steps that you must take. If you fail to complete them, regroup and reset. Although trying is better than not trying at all, it gives you wiggle room to avoid committed action. When you focus on doing, you drop the drama associated with trying.
Blow off failure and move on too quickly. Failure can trigger painful emotions. It can derail you, raise your self-doubt, and heighten your anxiety. It often brings unnecessary stigma and shame. To take the edge off, you might dismiss your failures as trivial or reinterpret them as successes. But adopting an unrealistic, Pollyanna attitude has serious drawbacks.
Blame and make excuses. When you don’t take ownership of your actions and choices, you miss out on the chance to correct course. Blaming others or external events can give you a sense of control, but makes it harder for you to effect change. While clueless colleagues or a poor economy might be contributing factors, dwelling on them doesn’t change much. Chastising yourself also adds barriers to bouncing back.
Deny and cover up. Ignoring and hiding your mistakes cause you to miss out on the valuable lessons they provide. You are bound to repeat them if you don’t shed light on them. Denying your role in the failure or that a failure occurred thwarts improvement. Find a supportive group or create a learning organization where goof-ups are openly discussed.
Give up easily. Stretching and growing involves facing uncertainty and having setbacks. If you are not willing to move beyond your comfort zone, you might feel safe, but surely limit your opportunities. While quitting is not in itself a bad choice, you want to make sure you’re not simply succumbing to fear of failure. This kind of relinquishment leads to regret.
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Embracing failures doesn’t mean deliberately seeking it or creating a lax work environment. It’s not a call for reckless conduct and disregard of standards. Fear of failure can be healthy when it protects you and doesn’t paralyze you.
Failure and mistakes have real consequences. Do what you must to avoid or minimize them. Unknowns also create special challenges. Do what you can to fill in the blanks and create solutions.
But realize that you will continue to face uncertainty, mess up, and experience outright failures because you’re human. You’re fallible and you don’t have all the answers.
Knowing how to accept and process failures, screw-ups and unknowns will help you use them to your advantage. Recognizing them as normal and often necessary to success is key.
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*This post is featured on Lifehacker.com as Change Your Definition of Failure: It’s How You Get Better.