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Fail to Succeed: A Different Way to Look at Failure

A Different Way to Look at Failure

“Failure is delay, not defeat.

It is a temporary detour, not a dead-end.

Failure is something we can avoid only by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing.”

1000 failures before success

Many of us know the story of Thomas Edison’s 1000 failures before succeeding in inventing the light bulb.

In my workshops, when we discuss ‘success’, a recurring theme is the inevitability of failure on the road to success.

Steve Jobs was forced out of Apple (the company he co-founded) before returning a decade later to turn-around the then ailing company. James Dyson puts Thomas Edison to shame with his 5,126 failed prototypes before creating his revolutionary eponymous vacuum cleaner. He now has an estimated net worth of over 5 billion US dollars!

Of course, we all hate the idea of failure: For some, avoiding failure is an even bigger motivator than achieving success. And failure (as well as success) always comes with opportunity cost: the time and money you could have invested in other opportunities.

Painful as it is, there’s a great deal of value in failure: if we assume it’s inevitability, here are some helpful strategies to extract the maximum benefit from failure.

Set clear goals.

Goals create measurable outcomes and define what both success and failure look like. Better still, create SMART goals: goals that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and that have a time-line. With SMART goals, when things are going off track, we have a tool to analyse why? We have the information with which to fix up, reset or pivot.

Don’t set yourself up for failure

Whilst failure may be an inevitable step on the road to success, this is very different from setting yourself up for failure. Setting yourself up for failure is when you have unrealistic expectations (pay attention to the Achievable in SMART). Conversely, if your expectations are too low (‘I know I’m not going to do well in this’), you have failed before you have even started. An elite athlete knows the contribution a positive mindset plays in their success and the value a coach brings to their mental preparation.

Place small bets

Small bets dramatically lower the risk of catastrophic failure. Break large goals down into smaller, nimbler goals: the feedback from these small steps enables us to remain agile, tweaking and fine-tuning to keep us on track. Small bets raise alarm bells early before the whole house burns down! Small bets kill off bad ideas quickly and cheaply.

Keep motivated.

Failure, of course, is demotivating. We may feel stuck in a rut, unsure of how to move forward (back to goals, again!).  We may feel we have made a mistake with our study or career path. A favorite trick of mine – which I think works well for all visually-minded people – is to create and keep handy a personal mood board of inspirational images. For me, I keep images of my favorite photographers and remind myself why I chose to pursue a career in photography in the first place. It’s aspirational and instantly helps me fall back in love with photography.

Know when to give up.

Sometimes failure really is just that: failure. It wasn’t meant to be. You’ve been playing on the wrong field.

In his book, The Dip, Seth Godin describes the differences between a temporary setback, a total dead-end and the importance of recognising the difference between the two. The guitar gathering dust under your bed? You realized quickly that just didn’t have the passion, drive, and temperament to become a Rock God.

A dead-end may be an entrepreneur underestimating either the market for their product or the existing competition. Or maybe your natural talents simply don’t match your ambitions or your passion is unsustainable (Rock God?).

Spectacularly successful as Richard Branson’s career has been, by his own admission he has had many many failures (Virgin Cola anyone?). But he has always been quick to move on and apply the valuable lessons from each failure.

In other words: reframe failure as an essential stage for the pathway to success

Rather than fearing failure, consider it as an essential part of building a strong foundation for success. As motivational speaker Denis Waitley says, we can only avoid failure by abdicating our pursuit of success: ‘failure should be our teacher, not our undertaker.

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