Failing Upward: My Resolution to Fail More and Become Better for It

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By Melissa Rodier

I’m already on point for my 2017 New Year’s Resolution. I’m actually three-weeks late with my New Year’s Resolution, which is what makes me so incredibly on point. I failed to figure out a resolution before 2016 ended. I failed to come up with one in the early days of 2017. Instead, twenty-four days later, nearly an entire month later, I’ve finally resolved on my personal goal for 2017:

Fail more.

I am resolved to fail in 2017. I will fail all over the place. I will fail in my personal life. I will fail in my professional life. And hopefully somewhere in between all of the failures, I will find success, too.

My resolution came to me as I was scouring the internet for inspiration for this very blog post. First, I looked at the calendar to see if there were any events I could take advantage of to boost traffic to this post. Countless topics came to me through the magic of Google: the new president, the beginning of tax season, Oscar nominations, the Patriots making it to yet another Super Bowl, the 70th anniversary of Al Capone’s death. I’m sure I could come up with something from that list which would tie in with the Woden ethos, but it felt disingenuous; none of it sparked any real interest in me. If I don’t care, how can I write in a way that would make anyone else care? It’s not only a waste of my own time, but of the reader’s time, too.

My next step was to check out the usual suspects to see if there was anything new or innovative or fun happening in the world of branding or business or storytelling: Inc, Fast Company, AdWeek, Think with Google. I was distracted as I went through articles; bookmarking things to share later, opening countless tabs as I went clicking down the rabbit hole. And then, just as I was ready to settle for doing a blog post about the hero’s journey in film (to tie in with the January 24th Academy Award nominations), I found what I was looking for the entire time: The Benefits of Failure.

Casey Carey, the director of Google Analytics Marketing, offers his suggestion for 2017: instituting quarterly failure reports. Carey’s marketing team is already using them. According to Carey:

“The quarterly failure report has two goals. The first is to share what has been learned. Failure is a fact of life for testers, and every flop represents a fact uncovered. Sharing those defeats in a routine way promotes institutional memory, ensuring history will be less likely to repeat itself. … The second goal is to reinforce the culture of failing―and learning―fast. Failure is the byproduct of good testing.”

It’s a cliché at this point: you have to fail to succeed. We’ve all seen the memes about how Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team, how Oprah was told she’d never succeed on television, how Steve Jobs was fired from Apple, how Harry Potter was rejected by countless publishers. The moral of these stories is clear: keep trying and failing until you succeed. But from there, these stories have a Cinderella aura about them. Our heroes failed incredibly, then found amazing success and lived in its warm glow forevermore. Never give up, because one day you will succeed so fantastically that you’ll shame everyone who ever rejected you. It’s a nice story, but it’s not what I’m interested in, at least not for 2017.

Instead, I’m interested in the ways I can own my failures to achieve and succeed in new and unexpected ways. It’s why Carey’s suggestion spoke so clearly to me. I want to embrace my failures and empower myself to try new things so I can learn, succeed, and grow due to my own risks and efforts. And I think it’s a worthwhile resolution for brands and businesses as a whole to take in the New Year, too.

Not only are there philosophical underpinnings in play here; there is also the science behind embracing of failure. Nigel Barber, PhD writes in Psychology Today:

“With success, people keep on doing the same thing. When they fail, they are forced to adapt and change. That is not just a human characteristic but constitutes a basic feature of how the mammalian brain works. If a lab rat no longer gets rewarded for pressing a lever that had yielded food pellets before, it gets visibly upset. As its frantic efforts fail, it resorts to all manner of strange, or novel, reactions from grooming itself to biting the lever, or leaping into the air. It is learning that the world has changed and its brain is getting rewired, so to speak.”

At Woden, neuroscience is one of the fundamental inspirations of what we do. Our emphasis on storytelling in brand identity is as much inspired by the works of Joseph Campbell as it is by scientific studies on the relationship between oxytocin levels and stories. When I read about how failure helps rewire our brains to think in different, creative, and innovative ways, it aligns so well with the work we do at Woden, it feels like kismet. In order to think differently, you have to be pushed out from your own comfort zone. The best ideas and thinking come from trying to remedy some inherent failure. Having the bravery to try something that may end in failure in order to learn and innovate is the thing that will separate the truly great from the merely good enough.

Elon Musk once said, “Failure is an option here. If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough.” While this is a great concept, one of the biggest hurdles to overcome is our own fear of admitting failure. It’s hard to be wrong, to be mistaken, to fail. It’s why the idea of a quarterly failure report is so radical. It’s why building a culture that acknowledges failure is necessary for brands that truly want to innovate. Creating a culture that celebrates failure just as it rewards success helps eliminate the fear of failure, leading to an environment where teams can admit to failures instead of denying them. This creates a psychological safety net where people are willing to take risks because they know failure is part of the process, not a thing to be shrouded in fear or shame.

Of course, all of this isn’t to say I want to fail. No one wants to fail. Failure sucks. But I don’t want to hide from my failures either. I’m going to fail this year, probably many times; it’s inevitable. What I do with that failure is up to me. I resolve to own my failures and learn how to turn them into successes. I resolve to cope with my failures in constructive ways. I resolve to embrace where I went wrong so I can figure out how I can do better in the future. I don’t want to fail, I want to succeed. And by embracing, owning, and coping with my failures, I can do just that.

Robert Frost once wrote, “I can see no way out but through.” In 2017, I will take those words to heart. I’m going to fail on my way to success. And it’s going to suck. But it’s also going to be okay. It’s actually going to be better than okay. It’s going to help me discover things I don’t even know exist yet, things that can only be conceived in the face of adversity and failure. And I look forward to following the brands who embrace that mentality, too.

Melissa Rodier is an associate at Woden. Whatever your storytelling needs may be, let Woden help. Download our free StorytellingBlueprint, or send us an email at connect@wodenworks.com to discuss how we can help tell your story.

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