The ‘F’ Word: Failure

Looking back at my 3+ months in class at General Assembly, I did a lot of good work, I learned a ton about myself, about developing, about how to learn efficiently, I made good friends, and I networked my butt off.  But I also had some significant failures, which I’ll discuss in a future post.  But for now I want to talk about failure, and how to fail well.

Failure is Inevitable

Failure is a funny word.  For many, it conjures shame and guilt, which are probably two of the most harmful feelings we can experience.  They drive us away from the help we need, and further into bad decisions.  But it doesn’t have to be that way.  Failure is inevitable, but guilt and shame are not.

As a classically-trained musician, I know a lot about failure.  A baseball player who fails to get a hit 65% of the time is a candidate for the hall of fame.  Shaquille O’Neal had a 47.3% failure rate at free throws, and he’s still one of the most notable basketball players of all time.  But a musician who fails 0.01% of the time can ruin the entire song.  There’s nothing quite like hearing a beautiful symphony performed live, only to hear a wrong note during the climax.  And it doesn’t even have to be a wrong note, it just has to be slightly out of tune.  For a musician, a 0.1% failure rate means you’re looking for another job.

Learning How to Fail

But as I said earlier, failure is inevitable, so we must learn how to fail.  The first thing to learn about failure is to ignore it.  Yes, I said to ignore failure, at least for the time being, and here’s why.  If you miss a note and you begin thinking about that missed note, you’re going to miss another note, and another, and another.  Stop thinking about the failure and move on.

The second thing to learn about failure is to own it.  If it’s someone else’s fault, then you can’t change it.  But if you are responsible for the failure, then you can change it.  There’s a book about ownership that, while I haven’t read yet, looks promising and comes highly rated by people I trust.  It’s called Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win.  There is a balancing act between owning your failure and not spiraling into guilt and shame, and the key is to celebrate failure.  That’s right, celebrate it!

The third thing to learn about failure is to celebrate it.  Sara Blakely, founder of Spanx and now billionaire, has said before that failure means not trying.  As a child, her father would celebrate her and her brother’s failures.  Failure usually means you tried something beyond your current abilities, and that’s a good thing.  Find ways to celebrate success.  Call a friend and proudly declare, “I failed!”  Reward yourself, but make sure you consider your reward a positive result of failure, instead of a consolation to make yourself feel better.

The fourth thing to learn about failure is how and when to process it.  As I mentioned above, ignore failure at first.  In other words, wait to process it until the performance is over.  For you, the performance may be finished at the end of the day, or the week, or once the project is complete, but do not try to process failure in the middle of the performance; you will ruin the rest of the performance.

Processing failure should always involve others.  Gather people 1) you trust, 2) who know you, and 3) who know or understand what you’re trying to accomplish.  Sometimes that’s going to be three different groups of people, sometimes one or two people will fit all three categories, but make sure you cover all three categories.  Tell them what happened, and let the conversation begin.  You should cover not only why you failed and how to prevent it in the future, but also make sure you are emotionally good with that failure.  In other words, celebrate it!  Discuss what you learned from the process, and how you can fail again in the future by trying something else that you can’t quite do yet.

Yay!  I Failed!

In a future post, I’ll discuss my failures throughout my experience with General Assembly.  But for now, celebrate a failure in the comments below.


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