How to Successfully Fail
For the past 4 years of my professional career, I have been employed as a business consultant, my primary responsibility being, to help organizations large and small accomplish key business objectives through the implementation and adoption of a combination of software and business analytics methodologies.
These businesses looked to me in most instances as the expert in the room, there to help navigate them through the changes we all agreed would transform their operations and lead them to long-term success. I enjoyed every bit of my time as a consultant and learned many valuable lessons that shaped my understanding of success and what it takes to achieve it.
Although I would consider my stint as a consultant a success, it was not without challenges and definitely not without failure. In fact, I learned very quickly that in 99% of instances, things never went as planned in spite of my best efforts. This happened so often throughout my career that I adopted a mantra I had heard a long time ago as a way of preparing my clients for the ups and downs of the implementation process. Towards the end of the project kickoff call, I would say the following:
“I reserve the right to be smarter tomorrow than I am today.”
I would then explain to them that as the project progressed, I would constantly evaluate my actions and my recommendations to ensure they were still relevant and geared to lead them to their desired destination. I believed it was not in their best interest to keep on a particular path simply because I was too proud to say I had been mistaken in the past or that I had learned or discovered something new that was better suited to lead them to success. Fortunately, all the clients I applied this principle to embraced the approach and appreciated my willingness to dedicate myself to their success rather than a particular way to get there.
So, what does reserving the right to be smarter actually mean? For me, it means that I accept the potential of failure as an integral part of the process of attaining success. I have learned through personal and vicarious experience, how easy it is to be blinded by the bright lights of success because it obscures the struggles, challenges, and necessary failures needed to get there. How often do we assume that the success we see in others is a testament to everything going right? I believe this flawed way of thinking is possibly why so many people find it easy and desirable to envy or despise the success of others because they believe it was either ill-gotten or at the very least not deserved.
“I believe success is, in actuality, a measure of a person’s ability and willingness to continuously overcome failure and transcend the obstacles that will be inevitably arrayed against them.”
Contrary to popular belief, success is not a destination. It is a continuous process that has to be monitored cautiously and maintained indefinitely. Any complacency in the midst of success will immediately sow the seeds of its eventual demise. So, what role does failure really play on the path of attaining success?
“I believe failure is life’s process for replacing bad ideas with good ones. Hence, the only tragedy in failure is in our reluctance to embrace its truths or how long we choose to wallow in its mire.”
As a computer programmer, I have learned that failure is a crucial requirement for building great applications. Even with 12 years of experience, it is extremely rare if not impossible for me to write a piece of code that works perfectly on the first try. Many times, I challenge myself to consider everything needed for the script. I review and re-review multiple times until I am sure everything is right. Then when I run it, it fails. It seems to me that the gods of programming don’t want any coder to ever feel too good to make mistakes. That is why we hire and pay testers to find our failures (bugs) and work with us to get them resolved.
Since we agree that failure is necessary for success, is there a good or bad way to fail? I contend there is. Failure can lead to two possible outcomes; a desire to give up completely on one hand or a resolution to make some adjustments and try again, on the other. Failing successfully is dependent on how we start the process that leads to the failure and how we respond when the failure occurs, whether by our own doing or not.
Considering the characteristics of success and the failures that inevitably bring it into being, I will conclude by sharing my blueprint on how to successfully fail:
HOW TO SUCCESSFULLY FAIL
Acknowledge once and for all that failure is not always an indictment of how smart, researched and prepared you are. It’s a largely utilitarian process that allows you to identify, analyze, and eliminate assumptions, ideas, and activities that rob you of your time and ability to progress towards success.
Never be caught off guard by failure. Expect failure and prepare for it. Be very suspicious when everything appears to be going without a hitch. Even if you believe everything is right, have someone else objectively review your activities to ensure you are not overlooking or missing anything.
Fail quickly so you don’t fail hard. Never take too long to fail. In every project, identify the crucial things that have to work in order for you to succeed. Then test your assumptions on those items quickly so you can fail quickly. The faster you fail, the faster you are to succeed. On the other hand, the longer you take to fail the harder it will be on you and those around you.
Don’t be emotionally attached to your failures. If failure is to be expected in the course of every worthwhile endeavor, why be emotionally attached to it. Emotional attachment usually occurs when we wait too long to fail because we become too invested in the current path we are taking. Think how absurd it will be for a baby to be emotionally attached to the fact that they fell yesterday when they tried to walk.
Never see failure as the end, but rather a new beginning. Unless you have completely given up on success, failure should never be seen as an end. It is a process to get to your desired end. Sometimes what appears to be a dead end only gives us the certainty to go a different way.
Where appropriate, share your failures with those you love.Contribute your failures to the world’s collective pool of knowledge. Since you have certainly benefitted from your knowledge of other people’s failures, give back by sharing yours so others can avoid those same pitfalls.
Analyze your failures before moving on. The only dumb thing you can do about failure is to repeat it. So analyze your failures. Understand the parameters that caused them to occur. Write down the lessons you have learned from them so you remember not to repeat them.
Adopt a positive mindset about failure. Think of failure like playing video games. Save your place and try again another day. Gamers don’t get mad or hate themselves because they couldn’t get through a level the first time around. They just keep trying until they overcome it.
Allow enough time for things to work. Sometimes we believe we have failed not because failure has occurred, but because we are too impatient to wait for success. If through previous failures you have figured out a reasonably reliable path to success, stay on that path long enough to allow that success to be realized.
Reserve the right to be smarter tomorrow than you are today. Finally, let others know you are not perfect; that you will make mistakes. Be humble and teachable. Don’t be afraid to admit you were wrong about something. Strive to learn every day to do better than you did yesterday.