The Importance of Failure

When’s the last time you failed at something? When’s the last time you had an idea that didn’t turn out well, or tried to do something and it didn’t work? I like to think that I fail every day — something I try invariably doesn’t work. If I had a penny for every time I failed in a day, I would probably be able to buy myself a bottle of coke at lunch. It might seem strange that I “like to” think that I fail every day.* Who likes failing? Perhaps I should’ve been clearer: I don’t like the act of failure itself, rather the benefit that comes from being forced to try something new.

In Natural Born Winners Robin Sieger explains the importance of having faith in your ability to recover from setbacks. If you trust the fact that you are ultimately going to succeed, and are committed to the process, you will find yourself identifying less with the problems and more with the view that, come what may, you will overcome them.

You may have heard before the soundbite that Walt Disney was once fired from a newspaper for lack of creativity or ideas. When he wrote Steamboat Willie Goes to Hollywood, Disney was bankrupt and on the brink of nervous breakdown. Steamboat Willie was the cartoon that introduced the character now known as Mickey Mouse and, in 2012, The Walt Disney Company generated $42.2bn in revenue.

Of course, if Walt Disney had taken the advice of his newspaper boss (for whom a psychometric test or two would have come in very handy), the success of his ideas would have been completely stifled. Disney prospered from the fact that not only did he care very deeply about what he could do, but he was also unwilling to give up, unwilling to accept the “failure” at the newspaper as an unsurpassable obstacle.

Another popular advocate of the benefits of failure is Richard Branson. Over the years he has been behind over 100 Virgin businesses, 14 of which have failed. Anyone remember Virgin Clothing, or Virgin Vie (a cosmetics venture)? Thought not. Branson has never pretended to himself, or the people who work for him, that failures don’t happen. He has been quoted as saying: “My mother taught me that I should not focus on past regrets. My teams and I do not allow mistakes or failures to deter us. In fact, even when something goes wrong, we continue to search for new opportunities.” The billionaire entrepreneur celebrates the lessons he has learnt from failed ventures. If he hadn’t have tried and failed to revolutionise the soft-drinks industry with Virgin Drinks (see below), he wouldn’t have learnt to “never make the mistake of thinking that big companies are sleeping again”. Failure is sometimes the only way to instil in you crucial lessons.

Some obstacles are real, they are tangible and difficult on a practical level. However, it is important to recognise the difference between problems and obstacles that are real and can harm us, and those that we imagine and exist solely in our minds. When we first set our mind to achieving a goal, the outlook we have is always positive — we are focused on the point of achievement. Then, when difficulties occur, we become fearful that this desired outcome may not materialise. This fear of failure has the ability to paralyse us into inaction, and regardless of how much thought, preparation and planning you have committed so far you will be unable to overcome it. If you identify whatever failures occur you will leave your confidence stripped and your goal unrealised.

Here’s a better approach: learn from failure. Treat failure as a lesson, and never lose sight of the outcome of the success you’re reaching for. Many CEOs and self-made millionaires possess a leadership style which shares a vision of what they are trying to achieve with not only themselves but everyone within their organisation. By choosing to never lose the motivation to succeed, and never forget why you are trying to succeed in the first place, the fear of failure and the paralysis associated with it can be ignored. Sieger gives an analogy from the world of sport: a sprinter doesn’t focus on his opposition, but sets his heart on the finish line and the outcome.

To promote a workforce that is highly motivated, loyal and appreciative, you have to foster a culture that does not approach failure with trepidation, but respects it as a necessary step towards success. The American philosopher and psychologist William James states: ‘The deepest principle of human nature is the craving to be appreciated’. Ideas matter and they should be treated as a kind of currency within an organisation. To give an example, in 1990 trans-national giant Toyota welcomed suggestions from its 47000 employees and, in total, received 1.8 million responses.

Companies which are open to ideas can reap remarkable dividends. As such, give your workforce the opportunity and the security to have ideas which are appreciated and the failure of which not merely dismissed.

*I should mention that I don’t mean the day itself is a failure — that would be horrendous.

For an excellent and inspirational digression on failure and its importance, see J K Rowling’s Harvard Commencement speech:

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