Today’s article was written by Erika Andersen.
I’ve been thinking about failure lately. Not in a morose, my-life-is-ruined kind of way – I’m happier than I’ve ever been. No, what I’ve been ruminating on is the fact that every person – no matter how accomplished, successful, smart, or focused – fails at some point(s) in his or her life. Our failures may be small – forgetting to pick up something at the store after we promised our spouse we would. Or they may be big – turning in such poor performance that we get fired from our job. Most all of us have experienced both kinds of failure.
NOW, Some of us fail well, and some of us fail badly. Failing well may sound like an oxymoron – what I mean is that some people seem able to take failure in their stride, to learn and grow from it, while for others even small failures seem devastating. Just today I read two really good, insightful articles about how to fail well. One was by Scott Edinger, in the Harvard Business Review blog. The other, by Roger Ehrenberg, was in the Business Insider. As I read both of them, and reflected on my own experience, I realized – as often seems to be the case with me – that failing well boils down to 3 things:
1. Really apologize.
This is the most difficult and most valuable place to start. I’ve written before about the power of a good apology; contrary to popular belief, apologizing well comes across to others as strong and confident. Apologizing when you mess up has other benefits as well. First, when you honestly acknowledge your mistakes, your energy is freed up from defending yourself to begin moving toward repair. Also, when you apologize, you’re acknowledging the reality of the situation – and that’s the only useful place to begin if you want to figure out how to avoid similar mistakes in the future. Finally, a genuine apology that acknowledges your error gives you the best chance to salvage the relationships affected by your failure.
For instance, imagine that you’ve just missed a critical deadline on an important project. Then imagine these two follow-up scenarios: 1) You go to your boss and talk about all the extenuating circumstances; all the reasons it wasn’t your fault and there was nothing you could do about it, and how other people were to blame. Or 2) You go to your boss and say, “I’m so sorry I missed that deadline. Here’s what I’m going to do now to minimize the negative impact.”
2. Get curious.
It’s human nature, when we mess up, to want to avoid thinking about it or looking at what we did. It’s embarrassing! It makes us feel dumb! However, the single most useful thing you can do when you make a mistake – especially a big one – is to learn from it. And you can only do that if you’re able to reflect on it dispassionately and unflinchingly. One great way (which I’ve learned from hard experience of reflecting on my own mistakes over the years) is to get into ‘fair witness’ mode. Imagine that you are someone else, observing your own behavior. What did this person do? Why didn’t it work? What could he or she do differently next time? You may get so curious that you want to ask for others’ input – which is great – but be sure to let them know you want their honest impressions. Generally, when we ask those around us to talk to us about a mistake we’ve made, they assume that we want to be reassured that we were in the right or that our mistake wasn’t so bad. Let them know you want them to be ‘fair witnesses’ too, so you can get accurate, useful information that will help you improve going forward.
3. Get back on the ice.
When I was a little kid learning to ice skate, the one rule my mom had was that whenever I fell down, I had to get up and skate a little more before I could stop. Although I moaned about it at the time, in retrospect, I see that it was a great call on her part – I never left the skating rink because I had fallen, and I never went home with a fall being my final experience. Roger Erhenberg has a wonderful line about this in his Business Insider article, “Do not let failure dictate your future choices.” Once you’ve apologized and gotten clearer on what happened and how to do it differently next time – get up and try it again. Or if you decide not to try that particular thing again, make sure it’s because you’ve honestly determined that it’s not something you want to do, or that it’s something at which you’re unlikely to be successful – rather than because you’re terrified that you’ll fail again.
In the words of Thomas Edison, “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.” Next time you fail: apologize, get curious, and keep moving toward success.