Rethinking Failure As Part of the Process of Success

failure is success in progress

I don’t know about you, but I don’t like to fail. Sometimes, I avoid doing things just to protect myself from failure. I don’t think I’m completely alone in that.

It seems that most people tend to think of failure as something shameful or undesirable. Understandably, failing to achieve success can often cause negative feelings, no matter how big or small the goal was. I know the sting all to well. It hurts, even if it’s a small one. And I don’t like it. But I’m fairly certain that avoiding failure by doing nothing is not a healthy way to cope, so I’m trying to learn better ways of dealing with it. 

And one of the best ways to overcome those negative, painful feelings that are associated with failure is to change the way we understand failure. It’s not the definitive end of everything good that we think it is – at least, I tend to think of failure that way. Rather, it is part of the process of success, and we can learn some valuable lessons for us if we take time to examine it constructively.

failure isn't failure unless you don't learn from it

Albert Einstein, arguably one of the most successful people (and certainly one of the smartest) on the planet, once said, “Failure is success in progress.” I like the way he thought. I can’t say I’m always 100% ready to think of it that way, but it’s something I’m working on.

Here are some ways we can redefine failure and learn from it effectively.

Don’t be afraid to make mistakes

Learning from your mistakes is about thinking about what went wrong, but it’s more than that. The first step towards using failure as a tool for success is to stop seeing mistakes as shameful. Don’t do what I normally do and beat yourself up over every little mistake.

Acknowledge that you messed up, and then let go and try to focus on how you can do better the next time. And make sure there IS a next time. Again, this is something I’m still working on improving in myself. Usually, I fail and give up … or I give up before I even start because I want to avoid failing.

failure is part of the human experience

 Mistakes are a natural part of embarking on a new project, but their even more than that. They represent part of the overall human experience. As such, they should be accepted as a necessary step towards achieving your goals.

In her article “Strategies for Learning from Failure,” Amy C. Edmondson classifies mistakes into three categories:

Preventable

These are the mistakes we often think of as bad. They result from lack of focus or attention to the procedures needed to achieve a goal. These are the ones that really sting, especially when they’re responsible for a major failure. The little things don’t always seem so little when they’re the ones we know we could have prevented in the first place. But they’re also the ones that are easier to learn from, because we can see what went wrong and can prepare to fix it the next time. 

Complexity-related

These mistakes happen when the goal is the product of many factors – your own motivation, previous skills, environment, support network, and the resources you have available to accomplish the goal. If any one of these fail, you might be unable to achieve your goal. These mistakes are harder to control and avoid in the future, but it’s still possible to learn from them. You just have to try a little harder. 

Intelligent mistakes

According to Adam Mendler, in his article “What Sales Executives Can Learn From Failure,” having the freedom to make mistakes increases creativity and work performance. Without unnecessary pressure to avoid mistakes and the shame that comes with it, employees contribute more frequently and are able to express more original ideas. Many great inventions were discovered by accident, from Post-It notes to penicillin. I try to remember this every time I feel myself starting to get paralyzed by fear of failure. That fear is stifling my creativity! 

Inventions That Were Made by Mistake

Whatever the source of the mistake, it’s important to remove any negative feelings about it and re-frame it as a source of new knowledge. This is the first step towards learning from failure effectively.

But what are the next steps? In a nutshell:

Rethink how you approach your goal

Now that you’re looking at the mistake without judgment, think of how you got into the situation.

In his article, “The 4 Keys to Learning From Failure,” Guy Winch suggests you analyze your motivation levels, focus, and mindset. Did you feel less motivated to achieve your goal at some point? Did something else distract you from it?

If your dedication and focus decreased at any time, make note of it and try to find the cause. Identifying the internal and external influences on your resolve helps you prepare to adjust for them in the future.

In some cases, discussing the failure with someone you trust can help you see the issues from a different perspective. Rely on your support network to pinpoint what went wrong and how you could prevent that from happening in the future.

Plan ahead

Identifying what caused the mistake is not enough to prevent it from occurring again in the future. You have to take steps to prevent it.

If your goal was to write a novel in six months (I’ve actually aimed at writing a novel in one month before – once I succeeded, every other time since I’ve failed), you’ve probably identified a few reasons why you couldn’t achieve the goal – lack of time, insufficient planning, or lack of motivation. Or, in my case, too many distractions – Facebook, kids, cats, Netflix binge-watching opportunities.

What can you do to prevent those issues from getting in the way of you reaching your goal in the future? In the novel example, you could scale down the scope of the story, spend more time planning it, or set aside a specific time to write undisturbed. In my case, that means lock the cats out of the room, turn off Facebook and the TV, and write when the kids are asleep.

failure is not permanent

This is something I have to keep telling myself every day. I love that Albert Einstein quote above.  Go take a minute and look at it again. By accepting failure, analyzing its causes, and defining how you can eliminate them, you’re on your way to turning your failures into successes in progress.