We’ve already heard that we need to embrace failure. Now here’s everything we need to know about what that actually means.
It seems like everywhere we turn we’re being told to “embrace failure.” From social media to countless business books and articles and the global failure conference FailCon, the importance of mistakes is lauded as a key stepping-stone for success.
Even advertisers are realizing the power of bragging about getting it wrong. For example, earlier this year Domino’s commercials touted that at their company “failure is an option” with a nod to its failed cookie pizza of 2007.
Despite all the failure-embracing saturation we’re seeing these days, this concept is nothing new. Iterations of “embrace failure” have existed long before the slogan was popular. Before the likes of Steve Jobs and Richard Branson told us to embrace failure, Michael Jordan told us that he fails over and over again. Before that Truman Capote said failure was “the condiment that gives success its flavor.” And before that James Joyce dubbed mistakes “portals of discovery.” Thomas Edison, Abraham Lincoln, Henry Ford—the list of innovators that used failure to get at their success goes on and on and on.
So why the apparent resurgence? More importantly, what does embracing failure really mean, does it work, and at what point is it too much?
In an effort to find the answers, we consulted a few experts who know a thing or two about failure.
We have a toxic relationship with failure. From an early age, we are taught in school that mistakes are bad. Mistakes on papers and tests are marked with a red pen and points are taken off. As a result, school teaches us to avoid mistakes rather than to make mistakes and then learn from them.
Failures are actually brilliant opportunities to learn. It is often easier to diagnose what went wrong after a failure than to figure out the key elements that lead to a success. By avoiding failure, then, we are removing an important tool from our mental toolbox.
At The Hatchery's recent 2013 Women Leaders Summit, attendees had an opportunity to hear from highly accomplished women leaders including author Christine Comaford, President and CEO of Leader to Leader Institute Frances Hesselbein, and author and motivational speaker Carole Hyatt.
In a panel moderated by the Wall Street Journal's Gabriella Stern, the women offered their collective knowledge on topics ranging from discrimination (Hyatt couldn’t take out an American Express card to start her first business in 1960), to work-life balance, to failure. Fast Company's Cecelia Bittner had a chance to attend. Here's what she heard:
According to Hesselbein, facing and overcoming failure requires a sense of exuberance that young people today are bringing into the work force. She describes it as a positive attitude that allows one to view a challenge not as a burden but as ”an opportunity to do something remarkable.”
Hyatt said it’s all about how one handles the disappointment, explaining that an individual can choose to focus their energy on moving past and growing from event.
When asked for 15-minutes of wisdom, Comaford shared the secret to influencing anyone.Emotional intelligence. Comaford explained that all humans crave one of three things: safety, belonging, or mattering. If you can figure out which of those things an individual needs, you can make them do what you want. (Comaford made the entire audience promise to only use that power for good.)
Instead of crowing about career triumphs and students’ bright futures, Greylock Partners data scientist DJ Patil addressed a more pressing topic at a recent commencement address: his biggest failures, and why new graduates should embrace similar humiliation.
And how, practically, do you achieve success though failure? It starts with passion—finding work that you love. Once you do, you’ll never take no for an answer, or have patience for those who stand in your way. Second, surround yourself with people you value. Just like your body responds poorly to junk food, your mind and energy levels also respond to the company you keep. Third, strive to put yourself in uncomfortable situations. The world is changing as we speak. Right now there are two people in a garage with a dog (don’t ask me why there is a dog, but there always seems to be one) creating the next iPhone, Facebook, Google. Those of you that are graduating today, you are the first to go through your entire social years (puberty onwards) with Facebook. During your entire educational experience you’ve had access to Google, mobile phones, and the Internet. And yet during your time in college you have seen the introduction of the tablet. The notion of using a desktop or a laptop is outdated. Given this rapid pace of change, the only advice that I can give you is to keep learning—putting yourself in uncomfortable situations where you fail and acquire new skills as a result.