‘Failing forward’ is often the best option

In this new year of resolutions and new beginnings, make it your goal to fail more often.

Who knows, it might actually be the best thing you can do. Research has shown that most people who succeed in business, and in life, have done so by making failure their friend. But in today’s world that is easier said than done where failure is not welcomed — not in the family, not in school, not in politics, or even in business. Anyone in business today knows that failure is not only a possibility — it’s a high probability.

People are quick today to label events in their lives, or even themselves, as failure. But according to John Maxwell in one of his best books on failure, there are many misconceptions about failure that need to be cleared up. First of all, failure is not avoidable. If there is a human being in the room, they will eventually fail sooner or later. Failure is not a single event, but a process. It happens slowly through a series of decisions and actions. Failure is not final. It is the price we pay to learn and achieve success.

So how do we avoid the paralysis of failure and learn to fail forward? First of all, we need to believe that failure — even many failures — are necessary steps towards improvement and success. As head of a national network of charter schools called KIPP, David Levan observed that students who persisted in college were not necessarily the ones who excelled academically in high school, but the ones who learned persistence and optimism because they were forced to recover from a set of failures.

Secondly, to learn to fail forward we need to avoid — or at least acknowledge and change — the internal judgments and self-promises we often make to ourselves after a failure: “I will never help that person again;” “I won’t ever try something I am not familiar with again.” These subconscious resolves we make with ourselves become walls of self protection that keep us from learning to work through risk and challenges. John Maxwell reminds us that “risk allows pioneering… The more you risk failure, and actually fail, the greater the chances for success.”

You’ve heard it said that “failure is the best teacher,” but that is only partially true. Evaluated failure is the best teacher. When we take the time to evaluate what went wrong — and right — we have the opportunity to learn lifelong lessons from failure. I once was responsible for managing the development of a major new product that our company was rolling out at the cost of over $1 million. After two years of intense investment in people, product development and marketing, the product did not succeed in the marketplace. After dissolving the product team and having a good cry, I sat down and started writing out “lessons learned” from that experience. Fifteen pages later I had a document that would benefit the company for many years whenever any new product team was formed.

Fourth, share your failures with others. Tell others how you have failed too and the lessons you learned from the experience. In the example of my $1 million failure, years later I became the CEO of that company. When I sat down with every new employee during their orientation to review our corporate values, I shared my story with them when I came to our value, “the freedom to fail.” Every employee knew from day one that this was a culture where there was room to take risks and fail because no one could fail as bad as the boss had — he still succeeded because he learned from it. Dave Logan concludes that people who share their failures and what they learned from them “are often seen as empathic, charismatic, and natural leaders.”

Finally, take action to overcome a failure. Identify the lessons learned. Take full responsibility for your part. Change your attitude and get back in the game. Don’t let paralysis, fear or procrastination keep you from moving forward. You will make mistakes. But as soon as you take action, each mistake will become a foundation for realizing that, in the long run, there is an imperceptible difference between failure and success.

Kent Wilson (PhD) is a business practitioner and leadership specialist. After running companies for 30 years, he now serves as an executive coach with Vistage International and the Nonprofit Leadership Exchange in Colorado Springs. He can be reached at kent.wilson@vistage.com.