Failure- Building Blocks or Stumbling Stones

Why does failure bother us so much?

We know that trial and error is part of the formula. Intellectually we accept trial, but not so much with error. Here’s where it gets personal (Ego) or professional (Craftsmanship):

  • Ego perspective–when we fail we let the shame of being a “loser” shape our identity. And our ego hates that. Failure becomes a “judgment” against you, one that reinforces your fear of not being “good enough.” You are an imposter that just got busted.
  • Craftsmanship perspective–failure is a building block to success. Just another detour on the trip to success. Frustrating, yes, but expected and manageable.

Your perspective will decide which trajectory you experience. Not from a simplistic Positive Mental Attitude approach, but from a core and visceral level of drive and motivation.

People who are committed to the relentless journey of improvement see something different when they fail. Consider Peter Sims’ (Little Bets) capture of how one of the most successful animation studios in the world “un-sucks”:

When Ed Catmull (President, Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios) sums up Pixar’s creative process, he describes it as going from ‘suck to unsuck.’ Pixar film ideas begin on rough storyboards that suck until they work through thousands of problems throughout the process in order to take films from suck to unsuck…

Of course, just failing is not the key; the key is to be systematically learning from failures. To be closely monitoring what’s working and making good use of that information.

Nick Saban is Head Coach of the University of Alabama’s football team and one of the most successful coaches in NCAA football history. His advice:

“Don’t waste failure.”

His encouragement is to get technical about what you need to do to improve to prevent another failure. Always in the context of what you did, not the other person. Because that’s the only thing you can improve. That’s how you win because of failure.

I’ve had my own brilliant disasters. And I have been deeply challenged in how I would interpret them.

My Junior year in college I lost the general election for Student Body President. It was such a fantastic failure, especially when it’s so painfully public. The day before the election I greeted everyone with a smarmy thumbs up, the day after I tried not to make eye contact.

I learned a lot about intestinal fortitude from that loss. Though not as consciously as I wish I could have. (It’s strange, years later I can remember the votes it would have taken to change the outcome.)

I adopted a new mantra gleaned from that experience: “NTC” (Nothing To Chance). I used that blistering experience to steel my resolve to get a post-college job on Wall Street (as an English Major, no mean feat) and into Business School for an MBA.

Failure can become fuel for growth, (however painful) or a damning judgment that stops us in our tracks. And how we view it matters.

Josh Waitkins, (The Art of Learning) calls this process of learning from failure as “investment in loss.” This requires a beginner’s mind and is the ultimate in humility. Easier to do when there are no expectations of you, harder when others expect performance and production.

I learned this lesson the hard way coming off a successful stint as General Manager in a publicly traded company. Having proven a Midas touch, I was ready to start my own company.

The fact that I had no entrepreneurial, industry, or venture capital experience didn’t slow me down a bit. I literally bet the farm (our entire life savings) on my success. After eleven months, we never got a product to market or secured the funding we needed. It was a complete crash and burn.

While very painful, the experience etched new lessons into my psyche. My new steppingstones (learned from failing) when starting a business would be:

  • Play to your strengths
  • Stack the deck with winnable games
  • Choose complimentary partners
  • Let quality drive quantity

Choosing to “invest in loss” changed how I approached my next entrepreneurial opportunity. While my first was a complete “break down,” my second startup was a “break even,” and my third was finally a “break out” success.

“Pixar directors understand what seasoned entrepreneurs like Jeff Bezos and agile software developers do: The faster they fail, the faster they will discover promising opportunities.”  – Peter Sims

I make a conscious choice to have the humility to see failure for what it is: Building Blocks of success.

Call to Craftsmanship:  What is keeping you from paving over your stumbling stones of failure?

 

-Craig   www.kraftworx.com