Failure. It’s a word that evokes a range of emotions – shame, anger, disappointment, frustration; unpleasant emotions that we actively try to avoid. The negative psychological connotations of failure seem to have outweighed the many benefits that failure can offer. At some point trying and failing became terrifying and only trying and succeeding became acceptable. Often when failure transpires, we (personally or at an organisational level) actively attempt to conceal it whereas others, particularly people in the field of research, fully embrace it. So when and why did failure gain such a stigma?
One factor is culture. No one goes out actively looking to fail, but more often than not organisations look to someone or something to blame. Of course this is based on the assumption that the project would succeed in the first instance.
Ego is another. Often guilt and regret emerge in hindsight as actions and effort fail to reach fruition, but it’s the shame associated with failure that is damaging to our self-esteem. This starts the cycle of actively avoiding failure as we try to mentally protect ourselves from future defeats.
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” – George Santayana
Amidst our obsession with success, milestones and achievement, we tend to forget that even the best fail. Overnight successes aren’t achieved overnight, but over years of trial and error. One of the world’s best investors, Warren Buffet is not without failure. When interviewed by Forbes in 2013, Buffet admitted to an ego-based $200 million mistake by purchasing a controlling interest in Berkshire Hathaway. While this purchase certainly paid off in the long-term, he felt his time and funds at that point would have yielded more profitable results in insurance. This list doesn’t stop with him. Soichiro Honda, Steve Jobs, Henry Ford, Sir James Dyson; all have had their setbacks, and each grew and learnt from their mistakes to reach success and acclaim. These few understood the wisdom that comes from learning and the term ‘productive failure’. That is the idea that learning is a process that may lead to failure in the first instance but encourages people to explore multiple solutions and apply this lateral thinking to other problems.
Thankfully, the tide is slowly turning and businesses are starting to not only embrace and own their failures, but share those failures with others. Engineers Without Borders publish yearly failure reports and Silicon Valley started FailCon, an annual conference with the sole purpose of highlighting failures. Businesses are now starting to reward mistakes as experimentation reaps valuable information, new products and open new markets.
The time has passed for people and businesses to be afraid of uncertainty. Instead they should encourage their staff to make mistakes. Failure is not the opposite of success; failure is simply a detour on the journey towards it.