On failure

We get a bunch of mixed messages about failure. On the one hand, we’re told we need to be OK with failure. Here are just a few of the books on the topic:   

(Image from 95 Business Books for People Who Dream Big

On the other hand, traditional education teaches us not to fail. We get to do a test once, we get a score, and that’s it. If we fail, we don’t resit, or relearn. We just fail … and its not good.  

At Thought Leaders, we say to students 50% of your clusters (your programs) should fail. The plan over 3 years is to launch twelve clusters, have six of them succeed (get to $10k a month) and six fail.  

There is always a lot of energy around this idea. I often get told that we should language it differently – not call it failing but some other word. That you’re either earning or learning.  

I disagree. My take is we should re-wire our brain around failure. Embrace it. Expect it. Own it. I think being comfortable with failure is critical for success in a thought leader’s practice (and in life generally). Or said another way, aiming to not fail will guarantee you not reaching your potential in any endeavour.  

Here are five hacks I’ve used to change my mindset around failure: 

  1. Fail 50%. I also wrote about this in my book Implement! (subsequently published as New Rules of Management), and in this blog. This gives me a quick reframe when a project or a cluster fails – this was part of the 50% that was meant to fail.  

  2. Be a scientist. Treat each project as an experiment where you are testing your hypothesis. Then failure (or success) is just another data point.  

  3. Play the long game. Put yourself ten years into the future. From that perspective this particular result doesn’t matter, and it makes sense to be ambitious rather than safe.  

  4. Be a learner. Think of yourself as a learner more than as an achiever. In other words, prioritise learning over results, realising that the more you learn the better the results you’ll achieve. Learning happens at the edge of your ability, so you need to launch projects right at the edge of what’s possible to get the best learning.  

  5. Don’t take credit for your success. This one is really interesting and not obvious. The best way to stop beating yourself up for your failures is to not take credit for your successes.