Imagine walking into your boss’s office and explaining to her your last project was an utter failure.
Happy scenario? Not likely. It’s hard to imagine she’ll like the news. It’s going to be a bad day at the office at the very least.
Let’s face it, nobody likes failure. It feels bad. It sounds bad. It even smells bad.
The first time you got a red “F” in grade school (OK, not you, but someone you knew), you got the message: success is for winners, failure is for losers. And sure, the soccer coach said it was all about how you played the game, but you knew the real story.
Whereas success is an American pastime, “#fail” is an American obsession marked by a Twitter post every 20 seconds — mocked, berated, shunned by peers.
As a word, “failure” is loaded with negativity. Just look at the laundry list in Merriam-Webster: to disappoint; be deficient in; leave undone; fall short; be inadequate; become insolvent; be weak, lacking and inept.
But it’s not all bad news.
First off, failure happens to everyone. From the moment we’re born, we fail our way to success. When babies can’t reach something, they learn to point. When toddlers stumble, they learn to balance. Failure teaches consequences, and consequences teach us to bounce back.
With a slight shift in perspective, we can look at failure as a learning tool, understand the causes of failure and respond accordingly, turning every failure into an opportunity.
With a little more intent, we can embrace failure as a mandate. We can recognize the road to success is, indeed, paved with failures, and seek them out to uncover as many unknowns, misperceptions and bad ideas as possible — as quickly as possible — to ensure we build our successes on thoughtful, thorough and evidenced-based foundations.
Yeah, yeah, you’ve heard this before: “fail fast,” “think Agile,” all that.
But, in truth, we’re just so conditioned against making failure our friend that it’s easier to give lip service to failure as a learning model and, instead, adhere to the status quo.
Why? Another “F” word: Fear.
Fear of failure thwarts imagination. It causes us to avoid risk. It helps us shun accountability. It taps into our lizard brain and shuts down our prefrontal cortex. It begs us to stay anchored in the harbor instead of sailing the open ocean.
The thing is, ships at harbor are safe, but that’s not what ships are for.
Astro Teller, the head of X (formerly “Google X”), speaks to making “the mess our strength,” by intentionally trying to break things and fail over and over as a way to achieve the biggest breakthroughs. Teller says the mindset that “enthusiastic skepticism is optimism’s perfect partner” helps them quickly kill projects that don’t work and pursue more productive paths to those that do.
Smart business leaders recognize this. So do VCs. Investors often ask about founders’ failures — not to bail because of a checkered past, but because they actively seek out teams who have experienced failure, embraced it, learned from it, pivoted and became better stewards of their companies because of it.
I think we can all take a cue from Jeff Bezos, who makes the case Amazon’s growth and innovation is built on its failures:
“If you’re going to take bold bets, they’re going to be experiments…And if they’re experiments, you don’t know ahead of time if they’re going to work. Experiments are by their very nature prone to failure. But a few big successes compensate for dozens and dozens of things that didn’t work.”
There’s no doubt failure is disruptive. It’s hard work. It goes against the grain of our cultural norms and ego.
But avoiding failure is not an option — it’s a risk-averse race to the bottom.
So what will you fail at today? Moreover, when you report to your boss, what insights will you share with her? How will you demonstrate why that failure was, in truth, a huge success?