Learning naturally involves failure. As we progress through school and later our careers, we are inculcated with a failure averse culture. Today, I started to think about where I learned to fail.
Where did we learn to fail? How do you view failure?
This question that I read today in the Purple Cow from Seth Godin stopped me dead in my tracks. The concept that we have learned to fail and not well bothers me. It’s rational to say that people don’t look for opportunities to fail. But if you stop and think long enough, you might also consider the times you didn’t try because the fear of failure stood in your way. Failure causes a resistance within that stops short of realizing our full potential.
Carol Dweck, who coined the popular phrase “Growth Mindset”, found that people with a “fixed mindset” attribute failure to their own inability. As a result, those assigned to the “fixed” dichotomy become helpless when faced with failure. Failure then becomes an insurmountable mountain and keeps us from reaching our personal summits.
How often have you feared failure in school?
This fixed mindset causes people to avoid risk, challenges, and criticism; thus, limit their potential. Since failure is born from risk, many people learn play it safe. By playing it safe for too long, we have the tendency of making ourselves obsolete.
- We avoid risk,
- Play it safe,
- Shelter ourselves from criticism, and
- Live fairly unrewarding lives.
Ultimately, we limit our success in life.
Failure aversion is not only embedded within school systems, but it also gets in the way of business results. Therefore, the business world does not appreciate failure.
How often have you feared failure at work?
And I can hear the punitive, critical, and judgmental comments from memory.
- “We can’t fail. That would make us weak.” said the Stereotypical Micro-manager.
- “You missed that erroneous deadline.” said the Delegator.
- “You misspelled the word their.” said the Grammarian.
- “Your one-day-direct-instruction-classroom training had very little impact on employees performance in the field. Why didn’t that 34 step process transfer easily into their daily work habits?” said the Supervisor.
Let’s succeed even if we fail
What should we do to combat this fixed outlook on our professional existence that has found its way into our personal lives as well?
Fail Well – shared within the book How Google Works, Googlers view failure as a badge of honor and should be worn proudly. The best products and inventions rise from failure. Keep the good ideas and weed out the dead ideas.
Learn – Debrief and hold after action reviews to list the causes for failure. Not in a blameful way! Constructive conversations should be had in a safe blame-free environment. Questions to consider include:
- What went well?
- What didn’t go well?
- How can we improve?
Productive Failure – Jump head first into challenges “fail fast and fail often.” Brown, Roediger III, and McDaniel (2014) state in the book Make it Stick, “Asking someone to try to solve a problem before being shown how to do it can product stronger learning and retention than more passive learning strategies.” Failure is motivation and should drive us to improve rather than surrender effort.
Failure is a Process – Think of failure as a cyclical process. Incrementally improve after reflecting on the experience. Try it, fail, learn, and repeat. The iterative design process associated with agile learning frameworks like Michael Allen’s Successive Approximation Model (SAM) can make design and development phases much more effective and efficient.
Overall, don’t fear failure. Be more forgiving. After all, we are all only human. And whatever you do, please don’t perpetuate the fear of failure with the younger generations.