Friday, July 17, 2009

Failure must be an Option

Can you imagine being told in an interview that you haven’t been enough of a failure? We see failure as such a negative and feared thing. I think that we need to relearn the way we think of failure as a valuable resource and that we should be concerned if failure did not occur on our path to success. Failure isn’t the problem; it is our response to it that creates problems.

A few weeks ago I was speaking someone who used to be a regional manager at Weight Watchers and she was telling me what she looked for in a meeting leader. She told me that, of course, they should have successfully completed the program. Then she went on to define that success, in her mind was someone that had fallen off the wagon a few times and then got back on. She was more interested in someone who had failed and THEN been successful than someone who had just been successful. When I asked her why, her answer was illuminating, “We are all going to fail at weight loss at some point or another, I can’t risk brining someone on who has not failed yet. I need people who have proven they can fail and recover.”

I believe that there are many people who mistakenly view failure and defeat as the same thing. I say that they are not. Failure can be limited to a singular event in time. Defeat is when we stop trying because we believe that all future attempts would also lead to the same failure. Or more succinctly defeat is when you let failure get the best of you. What is even worse is when we assume defeat as the only outcome and therefore do not even give ourselves the chance to fail. To quote Twyla Tharp, that is “failure by erosion.” It’s true. If you are truly trying something for the first time or creating something new and expect that failure will not play a role then you are not being realistic. Furthermore, not only should we accept that failure plays a role we should embrace it. In a work culture that is trending towards considering the ability to innovate as a keystone of high performance fear of failure is disabling and can lead to a stagnated career or worse, termination.

Reading that, it can be easy to feel damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Mattison Grey, one of our faculty members in the EmPower program and a professional coach, says it best in her blog, some of which I’ll repost below.

Recently I went to a Cirque du Soleil show—not my first, but the first I’ve seen with my high-performance-coaching eyes. What I saw, besides an incredibly entertaining show and story with amazing tricks, choreography, and acrobatics, was a bunch of mistakes—failures, if you will. I suspect very few in the audience noticed the mistakes, but I did, and it got me thinking about failure, and its value in high performance.

Each of those performers has failed so many times in practice, if they are going to fail during the performance, they know when and how it will happen. They know this because it has already happened hundreds, thousands of times. It happens in practice, in rehearsal, even in the shows.

One performer, a clown-like character, was doing gymnastics and tricks on a ladder. In addition to doing the tricks, he had to keep the ladder on its two feet. To begin any trick, he had to balance and climb the ladder. Three times he got part or most of the way up and slid back down, as if that were part of the show. Truth was, he was failing. He had lost control of the ladder and needed to start over.

(Read the rest of Mattison’s entry here)

Those of us who have had to perform in front of others in some way at some point in our lives learn this early on. I had a piano teacher who once told me “without failure how would you know what you needed to work on?” Her words were true. The first time I played in public was a disaster. In the midst of disaster I received valuable information on what I needed to work on and I was able to grow.

So how do you manage failure? We will talk more about that next week.


  1. So, what do you say to Rush Limbaugh when he said, "I hope Obama fails"?

    That was said in the context of the President's policies; but what about the context of the President's life?

    Richard Nixon failed and became president. Sarah Palin has failed. Would that make her a better president than Barack Obama?

  2. Always learned more from my failures than my success.