I’ve been thinking about the F-word lately: failure. I’ve failed a lot in my life. Big fat painful failures, that at the time I felt shame and immense misery over. My first marriage ending, getting fired, costly mistakes, close relationships crashing… and many more. With hindsight, I can also see that each failure led to tremendous growth and launched me into (kicking and screaming sometimes) an amazing new opportunity or chapter in my life. But I still don’t like to fail.
I’m sure you know as well, at least on an intellectual level, that you’re supposed to fail because it brings tremendous learning and growth. But you try to avoid it.
Maybe you’ll practice failure in a physical endeavor, such as learning to play the ukulele or playing tennis. Believing that you’re good with failure because you don’t beat yourself up about not knowing how to play well right away.
If you are regularly practicing failure in that realm, that’s a great start, but it’s not enough. Practicing failure needs to be brought to all parts of your life.
You’re much more likely to learn something and retain it if you have the experience of doing something new and pushing past your boundaries (into the zone of failure) than if you read it in a book or watch an instructional video. Those are great resources, but until you actually do it yourself and integrate the knowledge into real life, you have not actually learned anything yet.
Amelia Earhart described the value for all pilots of learning through deliberate mistakes. “The fundamental stunts taught to students are slips, stalls, and spins,” she says in her autobiography The Fun of It. “A knowledge of some stunts is judged necessary to good flying. Unless a pilot has actually recovered from a stall, has actually put his plane into a spin, and brought it out, he cannot know accurately what those acts entail. He should be familiar enough with abnormal positions of his craft to recover without having to think how.”
Earhart advised that in advance, the solution to many problems can be worked out on paper, “but only experience counts when there is no time to think a process through. The pilot who hasn’t stalled a plane is less likely to be able to judge correctly the time and space necessary for recovery than one who has.”
Earhart was making an exceptional point about practicing how to get out of unforeseen situations, before you experience them, so you know how to manage it and recover faster.
In mountaineering it’s important to practice a self-arrest, which means learning how to stop yourself with an ice ax in the event you start slipping down a steep and icy slope. It’s a critical, lifesaving practice that could save me and my climbing buddies. Until you know what it feels like to fall, you have no idea how to respond.
The first time I did it (on a very small slope that ended in soft snow), I was surprised how much I had to throw myself on my ax to get enough pressure for it to actually dig into the snow. It’s even more when the slope is steep and the ice hard. It also takes some time to get the roll right; it’s not easy, as your body speeds up, so you can’t panic and freeze. It’s a practice that has given me quite a few bumps and bruises in the chest. It’s a practice that’s also given me the confidence on the mountain to take on bigger challenges, knowing I have a skill that could save my life.
Unfortunately, the mindset that actively trying to fail in ‘life’ is not ok, which creates a huge disadvantage.
“The only thing that is constant is change.” Heraclitus
Myth: I’ll be safe if I make the right choice (failure can be avoided).
We’re living in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) world that just keeps getting more complicated and changing faster than ever.
With this much change, there is no way you can have all the information to make a decision. Nor will you be able to see all the possible outcomes. And as soon as you make a decision, the next moment the world has changed (if you’ve noticed it or not).
There is no wrong decision or right decision, just the decision. Life is not right/ wrong, good/bad, black/white. It is colorful. Life is like the weather. It just is. It’s our interpretation and judgement, our story that gives it meaning of good or bad weather.
There is no decision you can make that guarantees everything works out perfectly. Maybe you’ll make a decision and get lucky that things serve you for a while and you’ll judge it as having made the ‘right’ decision.
Eventually enough will change around you or you’ll change and the ‘right’ you thought you were experiencing will go away. What happens next and how you want to move forward is a new decision.
There is no playing it ‘safe’ because life is dynamic. Suffering is believing we have more control over our life than we actually do, we beat ourselves up, resist accepting, learning and moving forward. We sit stuck in should’ve, could’ve, would’ve.
This is where practicing failure helps.
Often failure is seen as a setback, delay or blocker to getting what you want.
Failure is not bad. It’s a process of learning. Failure is when the outcome is unsuccessful.
Failure can feel hard because of the story created around failure. This story is full of judgment, comparison, and suffering. This story often starts from the false belief you’re supposed to know how to do something in the first few tries of doing it or in a totally new situation. The expectations you have on yourself and the amount of control you think you have is brutal.
But continuous learning is necessary if you’re going to evolve. If you don’t evolve, you die, it’s that simple. Ok, that might sound drastic, but I think you get my point. You certainly won’t be thriving in this world if you aren’t evolving. Besides, when you evolve the world is evolving and there are new ways of thinking.
By embracing continuous learning (all learning includes failing), you are building your muscles of adaptability, creativity, resilience, openness, curiosity, empathy, innovation and many more fantastic strengths.
Practicing failure is about building the muscle of making a new decision quickly without the added story and suffering.
To get started practicing failure begin with something where the stakes are a bit low. Then do it now and do it often. Here is the practicing failure process:
- Push yourself in a new way – getting out of your comfort zone enough to not do it well
- Listen to trusted and logical feedback
- Reflect to capture the learnings and track them
- Integrate learning to make a new decision of what to try next
The more you test a lot of different ideas and theories in lots of different situations, the more you’ll learn. You’ll see patterns of what is successful in which type of situation. You’ll soon become more curious and be open to seeing things in a new way. Your resilience will build as you get used to things not working out exactly as planned.
The more you practice failure, the more you can speed up this process of learning and integrating that learning.
Because safety and control are illusions (very enticing ones at that), it may be fine to not push yourself out of your comfort zone for a while. But eventually life will change and throw something at you that you haven’t dealt with before, potentially really blindsiding you.
If you’ve been practicing failure, then you’ll bounce back more quickly due to your resilience of knowing how to deal with failure and your innovation for finding a new solution and decision to put it into action.
Not all failures are the same. In Designing Your Life, Bill Burnett and Dave Evans discuss a process for reframing failure. And since the purpose of failure is to learn and grow, you need to know how to categorize the failure and integrate the insights.
They offer the following categories: screwup, weakness, and growth opportunity.
Screwups are “simple mistakes about things that you normally get right.” So, there isn’t a lot to learn here, just “acknowledge you screwed up, apologize as needed, and move on.”
Weakness is a mistake you make over and over. “You know the source of these failures well. You’ve probably worked on correcting them already and have improved as far as you think you’re going to.” With these, trying your best is as far as you’re going to get, and you’ll likely never master it. You are who you are, no one is perfect, so your “best strategy is avoidance of the situations that prompt them instead of improvement.” If on a team, partnering with someone that has your weakness as a strength is a strategic move.
Growth opportunities are the failures you learn from so they don’t happen again. The “failures are identifiable, and a fix is available.” This is the type of failure you want to find more opportunities to practice.
The stronger your failure muscle, the more joy you’ll experience by living in life because you are not spending so much time in judgment, comparison, and suffering.