October 12, 2017

Free Falling: Approaching Failure from a Different Perspective

Last week was a huge loss to music lovers across the globe with the passing of Tom Petty. It was also an epic fail on the part of many news outlets who reported news of his passing before he had actually died. Whether it was a lack of fact-checking, or people jumping on the bandwagon and cutting corners to get their story out quickly, there is no question that it was a horrible mistake.

Apply this story to our roles in business. To start, no one enjoys failing. Couple that with the fact that when most of us step outside of our comfort zones, we feel uneasy. As we progress through our careers, the stakes get higher, and our ego begins to get involved. Make a small gaffe and mess up a project? Perhaps a little egg on our face, but not tremendously career damaging. However, when we have a serious failure, the ramifications can be significantly more dramatic. And yet, I’d make the argument that if you have never experienced a serious career failure, you might not be maximizing your potential.


Keep reading to change the way you embrace failure, rather than dread it.


If you approach goals as static entities, there is the potential for you to fail at that goal. If in your goal planning you include the notion of learning something new, technically you can’t fail… there will always be something new to be learned.

For example, instead of setting a goal of “Get at least 85% participation in my next employee engagement survey” I could morph it to include another learning goal of  “Understand what prevents 100% engagement.” I can still work hard to achieve that 85% rate, but I can’t technically fail if I am learning something of value in addition to working towards that initial goal.


We can take careful steps by crafting our goals and working towards the vision of what success looks like. And while that planning is great, it’s clearly not enough. The best impact occurs when we balance the outcome we seek with positive thinking AND the ability to understand what might trip us up along the way (and there is always something!). It just may help you turn a tough goal into a far more fruitful experience. How? Consider all the things that are causing you concern, and contribute to your fear of failure in that particular area. Then visualize yourself actually hitting that speed bump. Embrace the fear and stress that causes you. Then, get positive and envision yourself moving forward. Consider the steps you’d need to take to clear away those obstacles. And then think about how you’ll feel once you’ve powered through them. See, you can do this.


Of course, this might be the last thing you want to do when you feel as if you’ve really messed up. And yet, it’s exactly what you should do. It’s one thing to gather your own learnings and observations about where things went off course, but to also gather those from your colleagues and/or stakeholders allows you to benefit as well. It allows you to gain insights from each other’s perspectives and helps to remove the stigma and shame of acknowledging failure. It's a sensitive line to acknowledge failure, uncover learnings, and avoid blame or recrimination, but when done well, it's incredibly valuable. Added benefit:  those you ask for feedback will view you as taking accountability - always a good thing.


Failure can hit us deeply, and personally. Unless we’ve done something horrific along the Harvey Weinstein magnitude, we all tend to map our mistakes to the larger narrative about ourselves. Feelings of, “I am not good enough” or “I’ll never be successful” can haunt us.   So how do you get past that feeling? Try to dissect the story you’ve created, and determine what is fact, vs. what you might be making up in your head. Referring to my example above, if I only achieve 50% participation against my 85% goal, maybe the story I create in my head is “What a loser...I can’t motivate anyone.” If I dig a little deeper, I might just uncover the facts.  “Hmm. I released that survey during the last week of the month, when all of our salespeople are heads down. I need to rethink timing to get a potentially different result.” See, it’s just a story I created in my head. If I can flip that to, “I tried something, and determined what worked and what didn’t so I can optimize for next time” I’m in a way better place in my head to dust myself off and move on.

Resiliency is a tough thing. No one enjoys making mistakes, and even less so when they are fairly sizable ones. However, the best response to perceived failure can be made far less traumatic if you can pause and work through the above steps. You can even turn your whoops into a wahoo by reflecting on what you learned from the experience, apply that learning to your own personal growth, and then challenge yourself to find at least one positive outcome from the situation.

Of course none of us ever want to fail, but when we find the opportunity and learning in the chaos, you’ll find that getting through the other side isn’t nearly as tragic as you’ve made it to be in your head. If you can will yourself to follow the steps outlined above, you might just push through your failure and come out even better off than you started.

Christina Luconi is Chief People Officer for Rapid7. Follow her on Twitter: @peopleinnovator.

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