There are many hot debates surrounding the topic of whether or not people should be allowed to fail. Failure is a fact of life. It is typically one of the more uncomfortable facts of life. Many people that complain that the “trophy generations” never learned how to fail, so they experience devastating consequences in “the real world” when they finally encounter failure.
An attempt to normalize failure has been to showcase famous failures with quotes and videos that demonstrate successful people failing. In a Nike commercial, Michael Jordan explains to kids that his failures are the reason he succeeded. Thomas Edison didn’t fail over 1000 times making a light bulb, he learned 1000 way that didn’t work. A YouTube search of "famous failures" yields over 402000 results, including this one.
While these famous failures show us that failure is inevitable, it doesn’t change the fact that failing is still hard. It is still uncomfortable. But if we try to live our lives protecting ourselves from failure, we aren’t really living. We aren’t growing or learning. We aren’t going to get anywhere in our lives.
Our time, effort and experiences aren’t erased when we fail. We can’t go back in a time machine and undo what has happened. But our time, effort and experience weren’t all for nothing. We put ourselves out there. We took a risk on the road to success. There’s a reason why we failed, and we need to continue to take risks on the road to success. We need to become super fail-ers.
So how do we do that? Over this and the next post, we’ll explore five strategies to help us build resilience in the face of failure. These strategies include encouraging small wins, leveraging a growth mindset, creating space for the suck, redirecting your energy and examining what you can learn from failure.
In The American Psychologist, Karl Weick describes the concept of small wins in creating social change. We can apply this logic and set smaller, incremental goals on the way to our big hairy audacious goals. Aiming for small wins helps us stay focused on making steady progress on our goals. For example, maybe you are a football player trying to rush for 1600 yards in the season. A small win may be 100 yards per game, or 25 yards per quarter. If you don’t achieve the small win along the way, it doesn’t mean you won’t meet your season goal. So a super fail-er might set and fail at several small goals, but because they were small goals, the super fail-er didn’t slide back very far.
Leverage a Growth Mindset
In Mindset, Carol Dweck describes two mindsets that shape our attitude and effort toward challenges.
Someone with a Fixed Mindset believes that intelligence, skills and abilities are a fixed potential; we are born with it and can cannot change it. People with Fixed Mindsets still want to appear intelligent, skilled and capable. With a Fixed Mindset, we might avoid challenging situations because it could expose our lack of ability. Putting more effort into improvement and seeking feedback from others isn’t worthwhile because it won’t change our innate ability. Seeing others succeed might be threatening or disheartening.
With a Growth Mindset, we believe that intelligence, skills and abilities can be developed. Effort and diving into challenging situations are the keys to gaining mastery. We seek out feedback and are inspired by the success of others, thinking “if they can do it, I can too.”
Effective Praise is a tool that can foster a Growth Mindset. Effective praise names the effort or technique used to achieve a positive outcome. That effort or technique can be replicated to lead to future successes. While we still might not see failure as a positive outcome, there are three core elements of failures we can praise or celebrate:
Effort. While the effort may have been applied to the wrong direction or strategy, the quality effort is still praise-worthy and replicable.
Feedback. We can praise the opportunity for feedback from the situation or from others. This will help us identify how to move forward.
Opportunity. We now have another opportunity to try new strategies and refine old ones on our way to success.
In the next post, we will explore three additional strategies for becoming a super fail-er.
Dweck, C.S. (2006). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Random House.
Weick, K.E. (1984). “Small Wins: Redefining the Scale of Social Problems.” The American Psychologist. 39(1): 40-49.