Failure to Fail is Failure

To the victor goes the spoils. Failure is a popular topic and I spend a lot of time thinking about the concept of failure. Failure occurs when a plan does not succeed. Plan to wake up early and sleep in, that’s a failure. Plan to sell 100 units this week but sell only 99, that’s a failure. Plan to ask that cute person standing over there out, but don’t, welcome to failure town population: you. Failure permeates our world, but we aren’t allowed to talk about it. Big thinkers are allowed to tell us to persevere despite failure.

John Keats
Don’t be discouraged by a failure. It can be a positive experience. Failure is, in a sense, the highway to success, inasmuch as every discovery of what is false leads us to seek earnestly after what is true, and every fresh experience points out some form of error which we shall afterwards carefully avoid.

The stark reality of failure is it comes with a cost. Let us take the example of Mildred who is a manager of three salespeople, Stanley, Rachel, and Kim. At the beginning of the month corporate tells Mildred that her office needs to sell 100 units of product. She then tells her staff that each needs to move 35 units and for the person who moves 40 units, there will be a bonus. The three salespeople do their best and at the end of the month, Stanley moved 33 units, Rachel moved 36 units, and Kim moved 35 units. Stanley failed. The office succeeded, and Mildred pockets the bonus because she is embezzling from the company, though I forgot to mention that part because it really doesn’t play into the discussion, so I’m not sure why I mentioned it right now. The point is failure occurred and the price of failure is Stanley is seen as an employee who can’t meet quotas. Stanley is branded, is in a hole that he has to climb out of.

Coffee is for closers.

Every time someone says, “I’m going to do Something” and then doesn’t do the Something, they failed and get the reputation as a failure. Our society punishes failure because failure is not an option. We all live with a ticking clock counting down the seconds of our lives. We have limited time to succeed and each failure we suffer is time we’ve lost.

As a whole, American society needs to stop, take a deep breath, and really look at what is happening with the vilification of failure. Winning and succeeding is fun but rarely occurs without a trail of failure yet we treat failure as such a negative that we create a fear of it. Fear of failure creates fear of trying. How many times does a child fall before she learns to walk? The falling, or failure to walk, is part of the learning process.

Failure is not an option. Yes, failure is always an option. It may not be an ideal option. Failure doesn’t win awards and accolades so no one seeks that failure option. When people attempt something, they want to succeed. They just might not have all the necessary resources, skills, or knowledge to be successful. Failure in those cases are a learning process a discovery of what elements are missing, what rungs on the ladder to success need to be added in order to reach success. Sometimes the only way to discovery this is by making the attempt.

Business Week did a story on the importance of failure that made a very compelling argument for why corporations need to embrace failure instead of shunning it.

Indeed, for a generation of managers weaned on the rigors of Six Sigma error-elimination programs, embracing failure — gasp! — is close to blasphemy. Stefan H. Thomke, a professor at Harvard Business School and author of Experimentation Matters, says that when he talks to business groups, “I try to be provocative and say: ‘Failure is not a bad thing.’ I always have lots of people staring at me, [thinking] ‘Have you lost your mind?’ That’s O.K. It gets their attention. [Failure] is so important to the experimental process.”

Failure is important. If you aren’t failing, you aren’t learning, aren’t taking risks, and avoiding the real path to success. Embrace failure. Celebrate failure. Most importantly though, learn from failure. We fall so we can learn to stand up.

What is your latest failure? What did you learn?