Personal Development

Rethinking Failure: 7 Principles for Failing Forward!

Failure= Opportunity-Image
Failure= Opportunity-Image

Failure isn’t the opposite of success, it is a part of it.”

Arianna Huffington

I recently came across  a  quote on LinkedIn  that says “If you try and fail, congratulations. Most people won’t even try.” While I liked the quote and the sentiment it conveyed, I noticed that it had generated a lively and interesting debate which revealed the different thoughts and attitudes that people have about failure. One gentleman argued that failure should never be congratulated, since that approach promoted incompetence, lower levels of performance and a lack of accountability. Another person argued that, there was nothing wrong with failure since it provided an opportunity for people to learn, build perseverance and build resilience. As people chimed it with the pros and cons of failure, one person raised the point that FAIL is an acronym for First Attempt in Learning, and that the only way for a person to fail was to give up.

These mixed perspectives on failure are not unusual. Many of us come from environments and societies that socialized us to see failure as a bad thing, an outcome to be avoided at all costs, something to be ashamed of and worse yet, experiences that are not be owned or embraced as a valuable part of our development and life experiences. That said, failing doesn’t feel good and no one likes to fail.

But, what if we changed the way we thought about and spoke about failure?

What if we stopped seeing failure as negative or the worst possible outcome?  

What if we stop fearing failure?

What if we failed forward?

What Does Failing Forward Mean?

What People See Success Iceberg-Image
What People See Success Iceberg-Image

In his book Failing Forward, John Maxwell urges us to change the way we think about failure and to embrace a mindset that sees failure not as the opposite of success, but as a necessary part of the journey towards success. Failing forward requires you to take responsibility, learning from your mistakes, take new risks, challenge old assumptions, and persevere. On the other hand, failing backwards occurs when we blame others, repeat the same mistakes, expect to never fail again, take our failures personally and quit.  Based on this, Maxwell pointed out that that the biggest difference between high achievers and average people is their perception to and response to failure. Maxwell further explained that a lot of our negative attitudes to failure stem from our fear of failure, our misunderstanding failure and our unpreparedness to deal with it whenever we encounter it.  So, for Maxwell, the question isn’t whether we will face failure, the real question is how will we respond? Will we fail backwards or fail forward?

So, think about a time when you experienced a setback or failure or a time when you worked really hard towards a goal and it didn’t work out as you hoped. How did you feel and how did you respond?

I’ve had my share of failures in my road to personal and professional success and experienced moments when I felt like a failure. Whether it was the five different interviews processes that I went through in my efforts to get a promotion or the three frustrating years it took before I was able to purchase a home here in the US. Every failure brought a feeling of rejection, discouragement and frustration to the point that I would sometimes feel like giving up. I also felt embarrassed by my failures, because I had shared my plans with friends and family and every time they enquired about how things were going or the results, I would feel even more disappointed with myself.

Despite this, after each failed interview, I would take some time to reflect on what went well in the interview and reach out to the hiring manager to ask for feedback to help me prepare for my next opportunity. Despite what felt like rejection, I kept focused and kept applying for other positions. By the sixth application, I went through a three part interview process and landed a  role to lead a newly established unit. And from all accounts, this was an even better role than any of the others positions I had applied to. The same is true for my home search. Year after year, I would start the home buying process just in time for the spring market. But after putting in numerous offers on homes I really liked and being pushed out of the market by cash offers or overpriced bids, I would abort the process in frustration. Yet, I never gave up hope., I kept saving and preparing and was finally able to purchase a home with the specifications I needed, at a price that I could comfortably afford.

But, what if I had stopped at the fifth job application? Or if I had just resigned myself to renting that comfortable and convenient apartment? What if I had quit any of those two efforts too soon? I shared all of that to make the point that we are all likely to fail and make mistakes in our efforts to achieve a personal or professional dream or goals. But those failures are not final, unless we make it so.

Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.                                                                                                         

Thomas Edison

How to Fail Forward

So, how can we prepare to fail forward and not get stuck (see previous post) or quit on ourselves? John Maxwell suggests seven principles that we can apply to help us fail forward:

  1. Reject Rejection: Achievers who persevere do not base their self-worth on their performance. On the contrary, they have a healthy self-image that’s not dictated by external events. When they fall short, rather than labeling themselves a failure, they learn from mistakes in their judgment or behavior.
  1. Don’t Point Fingers: When people fail, they’re often tempted to blame others for their lack of success. By pointing fingers, they sink into a victim mentality and cede their fate to outsiders. When playing the blame game, people rob themselves of learning from their failures and alienate others by refusing to take responsibility for mistakes.
  2. See Failure as Temporary: People who personalize failure see a problem as a hole they’re permanently stuck in, whereas achievers see any predicament as temporary. One mindset wallows in failure, the other looks forward to success. By putting mistakes into perspective, achievers are able to see failure as a momentary event, not a symptom of a lifelong epidemic.
  3. Set Realistic Expectations: Unrealistic goals doom people to failure. For instance, if a person hasn’t exercised for five years, then making it to a gym twice a week may be a better goal than running in next month’s marathon. Also, some people insensibly expect to be perfect. Everyone fails, so expect setbacks and emotionally prepare to deal with them.
  4. Focus on Strengths: Don’t invest time focusing on your non-character flaws at the exclusion of investing in your strengths. People operating from a position of strength enjoy a far lower rate of failure than those laboring in areas of weakness. You’re built to give your talents to the world; be diligent about finding expressions for them in your career.
  5. Vary Approaches to Achievement: In the Psychology of Achievement, Brian Tracy writes about four millionaires who made their fortunes by age 35. On average, these achievers were involved in 17 businesses before they are finding the one that took them to the top. They kept trying and changing until they found something that worked.
  6. Bounce Back: Rehashing missteps and blunders for too long sabotages concentration and eats away at self-confidence. When dealing with failure, achievers have short memories. They quickly forget the negative emotions of setbacks and press forward resiliently. While taking pause to learn from failures, achievers realize that the past cannot be altered.

In closing, failure isn’t permanent unless you make it so. When you fail, take  the U out of the FAILURE and remind yourself that failure isn’t personal. You are not a failure; you’ve have failed at a few things.  Keep believing in yourself and your abilities. Keep pushing, fail fast, fail early, fail forward.

Until next time, Remember, ItsALearningLife!

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