It’s not a word that we like to hear. It’s seems to be a word that creates fear and anxiety and conjures up negative connotations. But why? Starting with the definition, failure means “lack of success”. And culturally we’ve been brought up on the importance of being successful.
But there is a fallacy with this. Or put differently, there are some dots that have not been connected. The dots we were never told about is that we learn the most as humans through experimentation and through failure.
Take, for example, when creating a scientific laboratory. You first start with making predictions and then we experiment against a baseline to see how we do against the predictions. Failure is expected and used to learn what not to do, or what to adjust.
But can we learn from our failures in the workplace? Typically, we place blame, give bad performance reviews, or even fire people for failures! Again, this seems counterintuitive when that’s when we learn the most.
Dan Coyle provides many stories about this concept in his New York Times bestseller book, The Culture Code. He points out that organisations with successful cultures seem to “use the crisis to crystallize their purpose”. He further writes, “when leaders of those groups reflect on failures, they express gratitude for those moments, as painful as they were, because they were the crucible that helped the group discover what it could be.” He then goes on to say “it’s a never-ending process of trying, failing, reflecting, and above all, learning. High-purpose environments helps groups navigate its problems together and evolves to meet the challenges of a fast-changing world”.
Going back in time, there is an anecdote told by long-time associate of Thomas Edison’s named Walter S. Mallory when they were working on the development of a nickel-iron battery. As the story goes, Edison had done over 9,000 experiments trying to devise the new type of storage battery but had yet to produce a single thing that promised to solve the question. Mallory said, “‘Isn’t it a shame that with the tremendous amount of work you have done you haven’t been able to get any results?’ Edison replied, ‘Results! Why, man, I have gotten a lot of results! I know several thousand things that won’t work.’ And of course, we know that we recognise and celebrate Edison for all his amazing successes that have touched all of humanity.
Finland has a strong culture that did not accept failing and as such they couldn’t get people to take risks. This was recognised as a problem and back in 2010 some Finnish University students started an initiative to help increase small start-up businesses. In their initiative they addressed they needed people to take risks and to remove the phobia of taking risks. After it received so much attention the next year, the International Day of Failure was established out of it! Now each year on 13 October people are encouraged to come together and share their failures so people can reflect and learn! This is to openly squash any perceived shame associated with failure and reflect on what they have learned from those failures to help achieve greater success.
Can you imagine your organisation creating such a culture which routinely inspires others to reflect, learn and succeed through the sharing stories of failure by “successful” people? How amazing would that be?
“Success is not built on success. It’s built on failure. It’s built on frustration. Sometimes it’s built on catastrophe.”
As research has shown, organisations that intentionally create healthy and psychologically safe cultures, create more thriving, innovative and creative teams. They create a culture that allows people to feel safe to share not just successes but more importantly, their failures.
So, as we finish off a year which has been full of twists and turns, challenges and catastrophes it’s also a perfect time to stop and reflect. Think about all the things you tagged as failures. What have you learned and how you could do things differently in the future? How amazing would it be if we all came back refreshed in 2022 with a new perspective on how much we learned as opposed to everything that went wrong!
Research shows that reflective practice is most effective when it involves communication with others. This helps build relationships with colleagues and create meaningful partnerships with others.
Personally, I have incorporated mindfulness into my daily routine and as a part of that practice I spend a brief time reflecting each day on what didn’t go well. One key lesson I have learned out of this is how critical I am of myself when I “fail”. My inner critic (I call her Gertrude, or Gerty for short) can extremely nasty! But I have learned (with a lot of assistance from my self-care support tribe!!!!) how to recognise the critical voice, how to deal with it, and how to be more compassionate towards myself and others when she thrashes me! If I had not had such a shitty year, I might not have learned this important life-skill! This has now helped me both in my personal and professional life.
Take 15-20 minutes and sit in a quiet place that brings you joy. Ensure you have no distractions. Reflect on things you’ve learned through perceived failures. Write them down so when you come back refreshed in 2022 you can re-connect with them to think about what you might do to create positive change. Use these questions as some prompts:
- What surprised you most about yourself in 2021?
- What surprised you most about other people?
- Who stepped up in your life and made your life brighter?
- What unexpected gifts in all the chaos, uncontrollable?
Use them to help reflect and learn. Share them with your support crew. Ask them what they learned.
Remember, we all fail. But we don’t all reflect and learn. Give it a go and see how much of an impact it makes to you and those around you!
Happy Holidays to one and all!!!
Remember, that the holidays can a time of difficulty for many. If you or someone you know is struggling for an extended time, please remember that help is always available 24 hours a day.
Lifeline 13 11 14
Beyond Blue 1 300 22 4636
MensLine Australia 1 300 78 99 78