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Failure is an Essential Part of Growth

We hide failure. And that is why we don’t succeed.

Too often in business and our personal lives, we cut off projects, actions, and strategies when they show even the slightest inkling of failing. When we fail at something, we rarely try it again, we run the other direction. You see this happen every day in publishing, media and marketing, in most every facet of business.

Dan Blank
I watched “X Games: The Movie” on Netflix over the weekend, and it got me thinking about how we treat failure in the business world, and in our careers.

“I think failure is essential to growth just for the fact that when you fail, you learn what you messed up by doing it, and you go back and make it better.”
– Ricky Carmichael

Travis Pastrana makes the point during the movie that what X Games is about is progress – that unlike other sporting events, it rewards the effort of trying to do something new. Perfection is not the goal, evolution is. As the narrator puts it: “The present is the past. Only the future has currency.”

Is this how your business is run? Is this how you approach your career? Learning by trying, by failing, by trying again? Oftentimes we do the exact opposite, we study what others have done hoping to replicate their success without any of the risk of failure they faced in the process. That is why business books are such big sellers – we will buy anything that mitigates the emotional rollercoaster of actually learning through experience.

  • Managers need to reward effort.
  • Organizational cultures need to create a system where it is safe to fail.
  • We shouldn’t focus on what failed, but rather on what was learned.

Too many businesses are managed by fear. I don’t mean of managers instilling fear in their employees, but of managers being desperately afraid of being one failure away from losing their jobs or missing their bonuses. Of losing social standing in the corporate heirarchy if they are associated with a failed project. One would think that this fear would dissipate as someone progressed in their career, gained experience, credibility and a track record of success. But instead the opposite happens.

As managers reach higher levels of stature, they may feel they have more to lose. Corporations are constantly reorganizing, constantly reducing headcount, constantly trying to decide what expenses are too expensive to maintain. So many people make safe decisions, along expected paths. Anything new often represents risk – potential failure. New ideas are pursued more rarely, and with more caution. They are cut-short at the slightest sign that exponential growth isn’t just around the corner. Lessons from them shared only if it resulted in massive profit.

So we build organizational cultures like we build sports teams – with aggressive drive towards ‘success,’ pretending that there is nothing to be learned from failure. And this ignores so much of how the world works. The fact that even in sports, teams and players spend thousands of hours practicing before they hit the playing field. That there is a huge support system to analyze and learn from failure.

Don’t be afraid to fail. Why? Because when you let that fear determine your decisions, your life becomes full of expected actions. How will that help you do something incredible? How will that push you past boundaries? How will that help you grow?

Let me know if I can help you in your career or business: @DanBlank, 973-981-8882 or dan@danblank.com.

Thanks!

-Dan

  • Are falling Fall leaves “failure” that leads to Spring growth? The entire “failure is essential to success” meme is misdirected. No, this is not a Pollyanna-esque denial mode. Failure happens. Reasonable and often serious risks must be defined, prioritized, preparations made and actions taken to reach any worthwhile goal. Learning from mistakes, from trials, from trying is essential to progress.

    Your efforts to correct the as-cynical and destructive “success at any costs” approach are laudable. However, “don't be afraid to fail” now ramped up to “you must embrace failure or you cannot succeed” often cynically mis-casts what healthy even when risky practice/experimentation/ trial/ testing/”getting back on the horse” gives us for growth, and leaves everyone unprepared to successfully cope with true failure.

    It also works to ensure placid compliance by the masses happy to survive in their cubicles, accepting “failing together” with a smile as the path to reach success. Their “leadership” watches, inwardly smiling, as this new method of power and control keeps everyone in their place. The fruits of such a cynical policy are often bitter.

    “Dare to Fail? – BALONEY” (http://wp.me/pVUDj-4w)