I was reading an article recently by Jessica Wildfire on “15 Habits of Genuinely Intelligent People.” Why was I reading that, you ask? Well, let’s just say hope springs eternal. (Me: Only 15 habits? Let’s go. I’ll be genuinely intelligent by tomorrow!) As I read, I came upon a simple statement that I’ve heard many times, but for some reason—you know how this is—it landed with me in a new, more powerful way. Here’s what the author shares about how Genuinely Intelligent People process failure (it’s habit #13 in case you’re interested, and the italics are mine):
"Any failed experiment is just information. Maybe it doesn’t pay the bills or rake in the grants, but it’s always one step closer to the eureka minute they’re looking for. They’re immune to failure because it’s baked in."
It’s baked in! So there’s no longer a need to view it as something outside the list of possible outcomes. It’s no longer an outlier, it’s just part of the process. It’s normal.
Think about a simple cake recipe that calls for eggs, butter, flour, water, sugar, and baking powder. You probably wouldn’t leave anything out on purpose—the cake wouldn’t turn out right if you did. Think of your job as a leader as being a recipe that you bake over and over, except you are often trying different recipes that you’ve never quite made before (sometimes wildly different recipes).
I’m not suggesting you want to experience failure every time. I am saying that if you pan out and take in the view of you in the arena every day trying things out and making things happen, an occasional failure actually should be part of your experience. Because here’s the truth as I see it: If you never experience failure, my friend, you are not trying hard enough.
And trust me, I understand (ooh boy, do I understand). It takes some conscious effort to begin to make failure your ally. Especially if you’re one of those high achiever types who isn’t really used to failing at all—it simply isn’t part of your story about who you are. You don’t allow yourself to “go there” because THEN WHO WOULD YOU BE?
The Bottom Line
Here’s the bottom line: by stretching yourself to the point where you could fail, you will grow, whether you actually fail or not. On the occasions that you do experience a failure, treat it simply as information, not as some cosmic meaning about who you are. Here’s a handy list of steps to follow after any experience you label as failure:
1. Acknowledge that whatever it is didn’t turn out as you hoped/planned
2. Acknowledge that the situation may hurt a little in the moment. It may genuinely suck right then, so my advice is to not deny it. Once you’ve licked your wounds for a minute, it's on to step number three...
3. Acknowledge yourself for whatever it is you just tried to do.
4. Ask yourself what the learning is for you in the moment that you can apply going forward.
5. Repeat step 3.
6. Stand up and keep going, you courageous person. Nicely done!
As the Japanese proverb goes, “Nana korobi, ya oki” which means “Fall down seven times, stand up eight.”
Here's a bit of good news: you don’t have to worry in any moment about standing up 8 times—you only need to be willing to stand up the next time.
So bake in some failure as a normal possible outcome of your endeavors. Then go out and bake like crazy. Let me know how it goes!