Is Failure Necessary?

I have gone through the last few years waiting for the other shoe to fall. Moving from in-house to consulting, I have been continually tossed into the deep and and I have made it out still kicking – to some degree or another. Still, for the memorable past I have had the notion that I cannot truly succeed until I have tasted failure. As I socialize this idea with my friends and mentors, I question what type of failure is necessary.

A certain level of honor has become associated with martyrdom lately. Is figuratively “dying” to prove a point an efficient way to create forward progress for your team or yourself?

– Ian Smile, @endashes

First let’s define failure. Is it missing a deadline or bombing on a design? Is it losing a client or speaking out of turn and possibly being fired? There are many different types of failure and many different lessons one may learn or ignore through life. But is it failure that teaches these lessons or exposure to new challenges? A friend asks of candidates he interviews for jobs ‘what was the biggest mistake/failure you have had and what did you do?’ He is looking for you to have everything on the line and to have failed. In this way, he knows that you will not be afraid to push the limits and taste failure, you earn his trust. One of his favorite answers was from the developer who, singlehandedly, disabled Rome’s telephone system for 45 minutes preventing even the Pope from making a call. This level of failure is certainly one way to learn lessons and to gain chutzpah and tact in the workplace. But these lessons can also be learned by pushing to the edges of your limits and reeling the project back in. Is failure in its complete form truly necessary?

Experience equates to dealing with risk and failure – not avoiding it.

– Brian McElaney, @McElaney

What if pushing to the limits is all that is needed. I go day to day waiting for something to go wrong, for me to miss a deadline or a detail, and to have to pick up the pieces and rebuild my relationships with clients and coworkers. I don’t avoid it and I live with a level of anticipation. This paranoia has kept me, to date, from an epic failure, and it has also pushed me through different challenges. Is utter failure a relic of the more senior guard? The idea that you must pick up the pieces after a disaster? But what about the idea of learning from other people’s mistakes? There is not enough time in the world to make every mistake on our own, so why not make new ones based off of lessons imparted by others? Mentorship and team structure comes into play here. It is one thing to fail on your own, and another to be tossed under the bus. What makes us, as practitioners, strong is the courage to ask for support regardless of why you are in trouble. Ultimately the lesson should not be to fail but should be to push yourself to your limits and to learn the humility to seek support. The words I don’t know are three of the most powerful words you can utter as it shows you know your limits and still have a desire to go beyond them.

When I first wrote this article I proposed to myself that my next goal should be to embrace failure. I believed that I could not grow to the next step in my career until I have tasted utter failure. But what does that mean? I need to lose a client or be sent out of a workshop overwhelmed and confused? Does failure always equate tangible loss? Or can I fail in my own way? Can failure be blinders to opportunities around me, or can failure be looking for the worst possible outcome and not learning from minor hurdles?

When have you failed and what lessons have you taken away from them? Which of these lessons could you have learned differently and which are unique to that situation? What defines failure in your career and how have you pushed through it? What is that one lesson you know now you wish you could have known five or ten years ago?

3 Responses to “Is Failure Necessary?”

  1. 1 christian manzella June 19, 2011 at 12:54 pm

    I believe the “failure movement” has mixed up metaphors. I agree with what you said; having a concern that inevitably you cannot always succeed, learning from mistakes, etc. I just have a hard time with the finality inherent in the term “failure.”

    So, no. I don’t think Failure is necessary. I think you’re on the right path by questioning what failure is, also. Failure should be a severe word. It should indicate something that has irreparably gone wrong.

    We would be better served embracing a movement toward responding appropriately to dire and unexpected conditions, and subsequently learning from our mistakes. Let’s not be prepared to lose, let’s be prepared to adapt to every situation, bad and good.

  2. 2 Victor June 22, 2011 at 11:55 am

    “We do not learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experience.” — John Dewey

    I think that’s the key. Failure isn’t sufficient as some people fail and, because failure can emotionally difficult, just move on without reflecting on the experience and learning. Maybe if you’re pushing the limits and reflecting on that experience it will be sufficient to learn as much as failing.

  3. 3 brainfarks June 23, 2011 at 9:11 am

    Thanks Christian and Victor. Reflection and learning are certainly key to evolving and moving forward, your comments are excellent points to this fact.

    Ultimately I think the reliance on failure has been that failure acts as a forced stopping point to reflect on. It is much harder to pause when you are in the middle of a task to reflect on how you got there. If we can start to encourage more pauses to reflect within project life-cycles rather than superficial status checks to see if there is any catastrophe I think we, as a community of professionals, could change our perspectives on failure and growth.

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