Why It's OK To Fail

Thomas Edison held more than 1,000 patents. Some of his inventions—the light bulb, the motion picture camera, the phonograph—changed the world. Others, such as an electric pen, never caught on.

Still, Edison remained philosophical. “I have not failed 10,000 times,” he said. “I’ve successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work.”

Edison understood what many of us struggle with today: failure doesn’t need to be an end; it can often be a beginning.

To complete the journey, though, we must first be willing to embrace defeat. Psychologists believe the real roadblock to doing this is not fear of failure, but fear of shame.  The fear can morph into crippling avoidance if it’s coupled with an inability to handle emotions such as anger, frustration or disappointment. It also can lead to mistakes if we hold onto strategies that aren’t working because we fear admitting we were wrong.

In a way, digital natives have been gifted with a fearlessness of failure as no generation has been ever before. Goof up your phone? Does a factory reset? Problem solved.

Acknowledge that a plan didn't work

This can, of course, lead to other challenges, such as learning that solving problems aren't always as easy as a reboot. But sometimes it is if we can summon the courage to acknowledge that a plan didn’t work.

The military, with its After Action Reports, actually gets it right. This retrospective analysis is part performance evaluation and part training tool.  A good one includes information about what happened, what went well and what could be improved upon.

The last part is powerful if done without playing a blame game. The concept easily scales to civilian life, from the business world to analyzing your kids’ report cards.

What if you viewed an F, not as a failure, but as an opportunity to root out problems? Determine what caused the F—was it lack of studying or inadequate fundamental skills? With efficient systems, either problem can be remedied, and the child emerges all the stronger for it.

What caused the failure?

Now apply that same concept to your work. What caused the failure?

If it was a one-off foul up, let yourself off the hook. Uncharacteristic mistakes aren’t worth dwelling on, and self-flagellation is as pointless as it is damaging.

Once you’ve ruled out “oops,” examine the “failure” on a deeper level to discover the true cause. This is just as hard as it sounds. This type of self-reflection is not intuitive, but with practice, it’s possible to move toward clear-eyed, shame-free analysis.

If the problem was competence, seek out training to shore up skills. If you were capable but following a flawed system, look to refine the process.

There also are situations where the “failure” was the result of a hypothesis that didn’t hold or an experiment that didn’t yield expected results. That brings us back to Edison. An article in Smithsonian Magazine credits him with founding the Edison Home Service Club. For a monthly fee, he would mail subscribers phonograph records. The key to his plan was lowering the product cost but selling more to generate the same profits.

Mass marketing was a radical notion in the 1880s. Today it’s an accepted retailing truth. Sometimes a “failure” is simply a concept ahead of its time. Remember to keep your “failures” on file for future reference.

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