It took Thomas Edison over a thousand tries to get the light bulb just right. Yet how many of us give up if we don't nail something perfectly the first time out? The best baseball hitters in the game fail approximately two out of every three times they step up to the plate. Still, how many of us won't step up and try something new unless we can be assured of success first? The problem is how we think about ourselves in relation to failure and its consequences. In this article, I'm going to challenge you to change the way you think about failure, and, in the process, change the way you think about yourself.
Failure can be the fast track to success if you recognize and use it the right way. It's all in how you choose to size it up. What follows are five ways to think about failure, and how to manage it. Embracing these concepts will help insure your long-term success in all of your endeavors, both in business and in life.
1) Define failure as learning. When a toddler falls down, do we say, "Man, he really messed up!" or rather "Wonderful, he’s learning to walk!" Yet when we fall down – the important line goes down, we get passed over for promotion, we lose our jobs, for example – often we exclaim, "I failed!" Worse yet, we may define ourselves as failures. Better to view failure as a temporary and necessary step on the way to where you want to be. Just like falling down is a predictable and inevitable process for the toddler learning to walk, so too are occasional failures along the way to success in whatever you attempt. In fact, it's hard to improve if you don't fail, because failure delineates clearly where the opportunities for improvement lie. So, when you do fall down, don't label yourself a failure. Instead, recover quickly from the temporary disappointment by asking, "What can I learn from this? What worked and what didn't? How can I do it better next time?" Then, follow the toddler's example: Get up with a smile on your face and try again, knowing you are better for the experience.
2) Manage expectations – yours and theirs. Sometimes the problem with failure lies in unrealistic expectations when trying something new. We expect everyone to embrace the new strategy after a single roll-out meeting. We expect the new model-year car to perform as well as the old one that hadn't changed for several years. We assume customers will flock to our latest and greatest product immediately. Rarely, however, are such scenarios the case.
John Kotter tells us that leaders exponentially under-communicate the need for change. Newly revised product lines often have bugs, and wary customers often have to be convinced over time that what we offer meets their needs and interests. Perception about failure on the back end can be reduced or eliminated by managing expectations on the front end. Begin new ventures with optimism tempered by realism, and help your constituents – colleagues and customers – do the same. Anticipate that there will be problems, and let everyone know you will be ready to solve them. That way, when problems do arise, they will help reinforce your credibility vs. damage it. And, problems won't lead you and others to assume you've failed. Rather, problems will be viewed for what they are – road signs pointing the way to progress.
3) Stop trying to be perfect. Sports psychologist Bob Rotella wrote a helpful little book called “Golf is not a Game of Perfect”. Golf is not a game of perfect, and neither is business nor just about any other venture you might imagine. Trying to be perfect can keep you from trying new and untested methods for reaching your goals. The valuable experiments that ultimately will lead to success will never happen if you are afraid to attempt them in the first place. In a vain attempt at perfection, we might freeze up and keep whatever natural talent we have from taking over.
Rather than strive for perfection, strive for action; bold, resolute action in the direction of your goals. You can make mid-course corrections as you go, but you'll never have the chance if you never get started. Aiming for perfection is fine; expecting it, however, is unrealistic. Let your unrealistic expectations of perfection go and your results will start to flow.
4) Manage fear before it manages you. Perhaps nothing holds us back as much as fear. Fear is our natural protection against threats to our physical survival. Too often, however, fear gets triggered when physical survival is not an issue. No one is gong to die if his or her promotion doesn't come through. Physical harm won't follow if your idea gets shot down at a meeting. You won't lose an appendage if you return from your plea-for-budget-dollars meeting empty-handed. Heck, even getting fired doesn't mean it's the end of the world. Just because fear often gets triggered in these situations doesn't mean you have to succumb to it. Gather yourself, take a deep breath, tell yourself you're OK, and go about taking your next step forward, whatever it may be. Don't let your autonomic nervous system convince you're about to get eaten by a tiger when you're not. Learn to control your fear or it will end up controlling you.
5) Stay in the moment. “What if?” can be a very useful question for anticipating scenarios and stirring creativity. “What if we doubled market share next quarter?” “What if we could take the best aspects of our competitor's products and roll them into ours?” “What if we could use our expertise to aid the less fortunate in our community?" Good questions, one and all.
Unfortunately, too often our internal dialogue goes more like this: “What if I say something dumb at the meeting and everyone laughs and decides I'm stupid?” “What if the economy takes a turn for the worse?” “What if we get bought out and I lose my job?” We begin to imagine negative “What if” scenarios and put so much mental energy into them that we have little left over for more positive endeavors, and failures mount. To counter this trend, notice when you are becoming anxious. Then, notice your thoughts. Likely, you have mentally raced ahead to some scary place that doesn't exist. Bring yourself back to the here and now. Ask yourself, “What's going on right here, right now?” It's likely not nearly as bad as what you were imagining.
Dealing with the realities of the moment will help you avoid creating unnecessary failures in the future.
A Final Word
If fear of failure is holding you back from pursuing your dreams or accomplishing your goals, challenge yourself to think again. Specifically, rethink how you think about failure itself and its relationship to your self-concept. Often, failure is the first and necessary step toward discovering our fortune; it points the way to success. Perhaps Henry Ford put it best: “Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.”
About the author:
Dr. Gary Bradt is a popular speakers on leadership, addressing corporate audiences around the world on the issue of change and success. His clients include IBM, General Motors, American Express, General Electric, eBay, FedEx and NASA. His new book, "The Ring in the Rubble: Dig Through Change and Find Your Next Golden Opportunity," is available in bookstores everywhere. For more information on Dr. Bradt's book or speaking, visit www.ringintherubble.com.