Strategies for Learning from Failure
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO FAIL?
Failure: 1) Lack of success or 2) the neglect or omission of expected or required action
This article will mostly focus on failures in the primary meaning of the word and the ways in which one can learn from failures, hence, profit from the lack of success.
Success and failure go hand in hand and this applies to all aspects of life.
Ask any successful person and they will surely tell you that their failures in fact proved to be a big part of their success and how they got there.
One cannot know everything immediately, things need to be learned and learning involves making mistakes.
And let’s say you already mastered the theory, practice still makes perfect. You can hardly reach great successes, be it in sports, arts or science, without any practice.
Once again, practicing and doing almost always involves making mistakes. Many mistakes!
Finally, remarkable success cannot be achieved by doing what everybody else is doing, you need to play innovative. Look at Steve Jobs or Bill Gates.
They both dropped out of college to then engage in extremely innovative projects and achieve gigantic success. They did something completely revolutionary and did not allow fear of failure or actual failures, stop them on their paths.
Being innovative means experimenting which ultimately, almost inevitably, includes mistakes and, hence, failures.
So why is it that people fear and despise failures so much?
Why do we have such troubles accepting the fact we failed, move on, learn from that experience and try again?
WHY ARE FAILURES SO DIFFICULT TO DEAL WITH?
Well, my first (very basic) answer to this question is that failure does not feel good.
To fail means not to succeed, hence, it means to miss out on the feeling of success, victory, pride and self-worth.
Being aware of the fact we are missing out on these positive feelings already suffices to feel miserable.
And humans, imperfect as we are, have a tendency towards avoiding negative emotions, unpleasant experiences and anything that may hurt.
The second answer can be found in the correlation between failure and fault.
To fail does not only mean to not succeed but it also involves a presumption one has done something wrong.
In many households, schools, companies and systems, to accept and admit failure still means to accept and admit the blame for it. And in such blame oriented environment, it takes a lot more effort to continue perceiving failures as learning opportunities.
The third reason lies in the extremely general idea of failures.
We tend to look at all failures from the same perspective: We did something wrong, we failed to succeed, full stop.
And so many people still hold on to this superficial perception regardless of it being genuinely wrong. There are a lot of diverse ways in which one can fail and it is important to take a moment to reflect on this.
Different types of failures can have different causes, consequences and ultimately, different learning potential.
DIFFERENT TYPES OF FAILURE
A first step towards effective learning inevitably involves understanding sophisticated nuances between different types of failures.
This prevents blame oriented behavior, strengthens the learning environment and enhances development of prevention mechanisms to avoid future failures of the same kind.
Even though there are hundreds of things which can go wrong, especially in large organizations and systems, Amy Edmondson (professor at Harvard Business School) roughly divided all mistakes into three broad categories: preventable, complexity-related, and intelligent.
Mistakes from this category usually happen due to deviance from rules or procedures, inattention or the lack of ability. They are easily preventable and do usually entail a percentage of individual fault.
Realizing you should follow relevant rules and procedures or pay more attention next time is not exactly a spectacular finding. Thus, the learning potential of this type of mistakes is not that all too grand.
This category entails mistakes which occur due to complexity of a system itself.
Regardless of the application of best practices for safety and risk management, small or bigger errors remain inevitable, especially when complicated organizations and procedures are involved, and to think that these could ever be avoided completely would be ridiculous.
So called intelligent mistakes, may even be considered good. These occur when experimentation is necessary and are frequently condition precedent for successful innovations and progress.
As already mentioned, it is crucial to distinguish between several types of mistakes and let me clarify why on a couple of examples:
Imagine a case of misinterpretation of a machine manual. You will soon realize this mistake was preventable, you will pay a lot more attention when dealing with this or similar machines in the future and this way, you will probably avoid similar mistakes which would otherwise occur due to recklessness or insufficient diligence.
Now, imagine an innovative product placement strategy a company is planning to conduct. This is a risky move which will probably result in many mistakes, especially during test phase.
Furthermore, the whole strategy may turn out unsuccessful and result in big losses. Nevertheless, even if they occur, mistakes resulting from this move can be considered “intelligent”.
The knowledge we could derive from such an experience could have great significance for the future business strategy and operations of a company.
If a current market situation and customer needs must be inspected, there is no better way to do this than to test out different and creative strategies.
And successful companies know this!
They all try to predict customer behavior, avoid mistakes and hit good figures but they also know that mistakes and losses can and do happen when playing big.
Frequently, intelligent experiments, even if unsuccessful, prevent future unintelligent mistakes and losses of a much bigger scale.
And although we all understand intelligent failures are preferred, every failure entails knowledge we can utilize in the future.
Take a look at a few strategies which can help you unravel learning moments from your failure.
STRATEGIES FOR LEARNING FROM FAILURES
Detecting and preventing failures
It is not difficult to detect big, obvious failures but in many cases, those large-scale failures could have been easily prevented by detecting and solving minor mistakes at the root.
How do you detect potential failures and ongoing mistakes?
You must observe carefully, listen to your intuition and most importantly, you must not be afraid of mistakes.
The reason why so many mistakes go unnoticed to turn into massive failures later is because people decide to ignore them until they become too big to ignore. Mistakes are ignored due to fear, because people are not sure how to react and even, due to laziness.
Companies tolerate bad management and bad sales numbers, people ignore symptoms of a potential sickness, parents ignore the feeling that something may be wrong with their child…
People prefer to wait for a problem to disappear, invest massive energy into ignoring it and miss out on the opportunity to solve it while that option still exists.
Unfortunately, this is a frequent mistake we’ve all made at some point of our lives.
The trick is to try to control your mind and not ignore your intuition telling you something is wrong.
Next time you feel a strange pain in a sensitive body part, try visiting a doctor.
When going through your books and seeing numbers do not match, do not postpone dealing with this. Investigate what happened and whether your business may be experiencing a problem even if this thought terrifies you!
But let us approach this in a more practical manner…
Two instruments which can help you follow and check where you stand are: “to do” lists and checklists.
I have a daily, monthly and even separate, private and professional “to do” list. Apart from the obvious benefit of these lists keeping me organized, they also serve as constant reminder of tasks I wish to avoid the most.
I keep them in a form of notes on my monitor and this method really works for me. Even if I finish all other tasks and manage to avoid the one I dislike, I will ultimately be forced to face it, even if at the very end of the day.
To see your “to do” list empty is a great feeling and once you realize all benefits of getting your stuff done properly and on time, you will get addicted to it.
Ultimately, you will come to refuse having your obligations and troubles pending, hence, will start dealing with them earlier and in a more efficient manner. This will inevitably include dealing with tasks most challenging to you, hence, will eventually result in discovering many mistakes at a very early stage.
As for checklists, I am a huge fan! I have checklists for anything remotely relevant and I write them down everywhere.
An example of my personal Travel checklist looks something like this: Accommodation booking, flight booking, train or taxi bookings, things I need to get, PTO request & approval, vaccines & visa (if necessary), get a guide book, buy things I need, do not forget medications, check and prepare travel documents and whatever I consider necessary etc.
I also have professional checklists which can look something like this: Do the pre-read, get some first-hand info from colleagues who had similar cases, deliver a draft version, feedback talk with supervisor A, revise the draft version, submit it, feedback talk with supervisor B etc.
These checklists may result from your previous experiences, where you may have missed something or noticed how relevant a particular step is. Only after receiving a very bad feedback on my report and being forced to alter it after a month of hard work, have I realized the importance of regular feedback sessions and started including those on my professional checklists.
You will frequently discover mistakes in your work or modus operandi and this may be upsetting at the moment. Still, do try to utilize knowledge derived from that mistake practically (e.g. update your checklist) and remember that noticing mistake at an early stage may have spared you a much bigger failure in the future.
Nevertheless, you will still have failures in your life and there is hardly any instrument or strategy which can help you prevent or minimize those entirely. Therefore, following the identification of a failure, your next step should be…
In-depth failure analysis
Failures are painful. The experience itself is emotionally-loaded.
Following a failure, it is advisable not to conduct any premature actions.
Give yourself some time to realize what happened and get a hold of the situation again.
However, following that first (shock) phase, you should engage in detecting learning moments from a failure.
Try to disregard negative emotions surrounding that experience and reflect on all relevant steps you undertook, meaning: Go back to your planning, preparation and execution and try to realize what exactly went wrong!
Reevaluate your planning
Do not beat yourself up for doing something wrong but go back and revisit all relevant steps in your planning.
- What was your plan in the first place?
- What were the exact steps?
- Did you try to predict all relevant hurdles which may occur and conduct a plan in accordance with those anticipated obstacles?
- Did you think about alternative strategies?
- Was there a problem with the plan or was it something else that caused the failure?
I always try to have at least two alternative plans for every important move I decide to make.
I try to figure out where my plan could potentially fail (or has already failed in the past) and then think of alternatives in case this scenario occurs.
Try with putting it down in writing (or even drawing) with the main alternative and all other options presented on paper.
This is a great way to visualize your goals and this will surely give you a clearer perspective on what you actually want and how you can get there.
Speaking of which, it is crucial to be honest with yourself when planning. If you know you cannot pull through a diet with absolutely no carbs, why are you even trying?
Try thinking of a plan better suited for you (e.g. some carbs, more proteins) and be persistent to see it through. And this includes asking for help if you cannot do it alone.
In this specific case, if you’ve been struggling with losing weight for a while now, why don’t you consider visiting a nutritionist?
This way, you will get a perfect plan conducted just for you, you will get a professional support and finally, you will know you put a lot of money and time into those visits and this will probably add up to your motivation.
Do not be afraid to invest into good planning! The more effort you put into it, the better the plan will be and the more motivated you will be to see it through.
Reevaluate your preparation
Did you prepare everything necessary for the proper execution of your plan? Did you think all of it through and really invest enough time, money and energy into your preparation?
After a failure, people tend to justify themselves and place undue blame on external or situational factors.
Common phrases here are: “I did everything in my power” or “There was really nothing else I could do” but these justifications are rarely true.
There is always something you could have done differently and the thing you can do immediately is stop excusing yourself.
The attempt to try to explain our failures by external, situational factors is known in psychology as fundamental attribution error. Don’t go down this road! Find the actual cause of your failure.
Preparation can be crucial and I will try to demonstrate its importance on the basis of a few concrete examples.
You applied for a job for which you thought you’d be a great candidate for. You got invited to an interview but despite your conviction everything went smoothly, didn’t get the job offer.
Now, you can say you did everything perfectly, blame the higher power, curl up and despair… Or you may decide to profit from this overall unpleasant experience, analyze all relevant steps you undertook and especially focus on your preparation for the job interview.
Did you practice? Did you try predicting questions which may come up? Did you practice for case studies they presented you with? And even if you still consider your interview preparation was impeccable, try going back even further.
You will surely reach the conclusion there were more than a few soft spots in your preparation and by improving those spots, you will be able to improve your chances for similar situations and possibly succeed in the future.
Another example includes unsuccessful dieting attempts: You conducted a good plan and were determined to kick off your diet successfully but again, you snapped a few days later due to being hungry and reached out for the chocolate you still had “hidden” somewhere.
Now, we may discuss this back and forth but the main question you should ask yourself is: Why was this chocolate even there? Why didn’t you get rid of it while conducting preparations for your diet? If you did, you’d probably reach out to a banana and still be on a good track…
Reevaluate your execution
Following these two, you should continue and evaluate the very execution of your plan. Execution is the tricky part. Even with perfect planning and preparation, execution may go wrong in so many ways, one can hardly imagine.
But let’s focus on things you can predict and those mistakes you can identify looking back. Can you spot some obvious mistakes in the execution of the plan? Did you follow all steps of your plan accordingly? Did you maintain your focus and motivation throughout it all?
One example for a faulty execution of a good plan: How many times have you started a diet, made a great plan, conducted preparation accordingly, just to give up again a couple of days later?
In this example, the problem with the execution does not appear to be anything else but the lack of motivation. And there are plenty of strategies one can use to deal with lacking motivation but to do so, one must first realize and own up to the challenge.
I find lacking motivation to be a very good example because people tend to perceive motivation as something spiritual, abstract or as something beyond their control.
Personally, I am not a fan of such an attitude.
You should always bear in mind that mindset and psychological stability can be improved the same way as physical execution. Next time this or some similar situation happens, ask yourself, what usually helps when you lack motivation.
Is it a vision board (I make one every year!)? Writing down your wishes and goals on paper? Talking with a friend who always transfers you great energy?
Finally, you may also want to ask yourself when and why you tend to eat excessively.
Could it be that there is something you wish to compensate by eating too much? Dealing with the cause of your failure may include silly methods, a lot of talking and writing and possibly, rather drastic measures, e.g. seeing professional help.
Note that there is always a way to deal with faulty or imperfect execution but one must be committed enough to identify and deal with all weak spots, regardless of how long or complicated this process may be.
Focus on variables in your control
Failures tend to leave us feeling defeated and helpless and that is why they are so dangerous.
It depends on the stakes, it depends on the effort you undertook and it depends on how much you wanted something but if all those categories hit high, chances are that you will end up feeling miserable and demotivated if you happen to fail.
Going back to fundamental attribution error, this is a point when we start thinking there was really not much we could have done and that external factors got in the way of our success. And this is the attitude you should not allow yourself to have after a failure!
You should never allow yourself to believe your success does not depend on you, hence, that it will never happen.
Take a deep breath and reflect on a situation where you failed. Which variables worked against you? Which variables do you consider to be beyond your control? Was there really no way to impact some of them? Going back to that job example…
You tried your best, you wrote the best possible application and did great in the interview. Still, you failed to get a job offer and actually, HR specified a concrete reason. One other candidate had a better profile and skills, hence, matched the profile better than you.
Many people would consider this to be an external factor over which one has no control over but such thinking would be only partially true. You can’t really hope to be a perfect match for every job opening. There will always be things other people can do better and a category where you won’t come first and that’s a fact. But don’t deceive yourself there are not plenty of things you can do to make yourself a better candidate and improve your chances for the future!
You can work harder, study more, take courses, seminars, even enter additional education and obtain another degree. You can work on your networking skills, focus on your client and colleague’s relations and dedicate energy to further develop your personality and people skills.
I will give you just one example to clarify how a shift in perspective can affect your perception completely: Has it ever happened to you to look at some of your old works (papers, exams, project, doesn’t matter) and notice how many things you’d improve or simply do different if doing this now? Yet, at that time, you thought that was the best you could do and that no changes whatsoever were required. This happens to me all the time…
But instead of despising my imperfect efforts, I learned to look and cherish them carefully as an evidence of my progress and improvement which will only stop if I let that happen.
There is so much one can learn, change and improve and when looking at the world from this perspective, there are hardly any variables completely outside our reach.
Significance of encouraging a learning environment and promotion of experiments
Speaking of failures and learning from them in the context of corporations and big organizations, this has become quite a hot topic in the past few years. We are talking about encouraging individual but also systematic learning and mistake analysis on an organizational level.
- Why, how and with what purpose has a person or a team did this or that?
- What was the trigger?
- Was there an alternative?
- How would different people react in the same situation?
Every time a business or an organization experiences a failure, there are hundreds of questions which can be asked and just as much useful information which can be derived from this experience.
This new paradigm shifts to the idea that mistakes are inevitable and that those who notice, correct, and learn from them before others will be those who succeed.
Furthermore, there are also examples of exceptional businesses and organizations which do not only develop expertise in noticing and analyzing failures but go further to create “intelligent” failures with the goal of accelerating learning and development.
You may say this is nothing else but experimenting in a real life setting but try looking at it from a different perspective.
Would you be ready to experiment in real life, with real numbers, facing poor chances of success with the sole purpose of obtaining potentially useful knowledge? You probably wouldn’t.
But it is this liberty to try anything and fail that separates unique and exceptional individuals and organizations from everyone else. And this brings me to my final point…
EMBRACING THE LIBERTY “TO FAIL” AND LETTING GO OF THE IDEA OF SUCCESS
“Victory is not final, failure is not fatal; it is the courage to continue that counts.”
I am quoting famous words of Winston Churchill, for I think they sum up the message I wish to convey quite nicely.
You will have times when you’ll feel like you’re winning at life, everything will be adjusting to accommodate your wishes and needs and your path will be smooth.
Unfortunately, there will also be times when you’ll feel like luck abandoned you and like a complete failure. You will feel like you are not enough and as if you are not worthy of the success you desire.
This is nothing extra ordinary, most of us experienced such periods at some point of our lives. And in such periods, you’ll need to remind yourself that failure, indeed, is not final and it is not personal.
Do not let it get to your self-esteem and make you feel unworthy of the life you want and dreams you pursue.
It is extremely important not to be afraid of failures for you will surely experience them as long as you live. Fearing something inevitable does not help you. It can only leave you handicapped and vulnerable. You cannot hope for the perfect successes in life so the best thing you can do is embrace failures as inevitable steps on your path and try to profit from them.
Once you realize failures are inevitable, do also try to embrace the liberty to fail. Do not beat yourself up and worry in advance about the mere possibility of failure. Do not deprive yourself of amazing opportunities and chances just because things may not work out!
Yes, you may fail but it would be better if you’d focus on your goals and development rather than the possibility of failure.
Also, try letting go of the ideal idea of success!
Ever wondered where the famous WD-40 spray got its name from? The name of the product, reflects its history of failures: It took 39 unsuccessful tries for the company to perfect the formula and ultimately, reach a sky high success! So don’t fool yourself thinking one simply succeeds or fails…
You work for what you want, you learn, improve and grow. Often, a successful journey consists of many failed attempts which occurred on the way. Does it even matter at the end?
Dust yourself up, try harder, fail better, you may even realize you succeeded in the meantime…