Failure needs a new definition

Nobody enjoys failing. We all want to make a success of our lives, our work and our endeavours. But in recent years, there’s been an increasing acknowledgment that failure is an integral part of life – it is essential to how we learn and grow. Failure, thought leaders have mused, means taking risks, which is key to innovation and differentiation. That doesn’t mean, however, that we’ve suddenly changed and we’re all yearning to fail. I’d like to suggest that this is because we tend to think of failure as the opposite of success. I prefer Albert Einstein’s version: “Failure is success in progress.”

Einstein was no stranger to failure. As the book Einstein's Mistakes: The Human Failings of Genius, by Hans Ohanian, points out, he made errors in the first seven proofs of E=MC2. But, thankfully, he persevered, and his theory of relativity went on to become a pillar of modern physics.

JK Rowling was rejected by 12 publishers before she found someone interested in the first Harry Potter book. Lebo Gunguluza, founder and group chairman at GEM Group, and Dragon on SA’s Dragon’s Den, built his business out of the ashes of being broke and blacklisted.

These people have tasted failure, but instead of letting it cripple them, they have chosen to view it as a step in their journey towards success. I believe that if each of us can learn to do the same, we can learn valuable lessons from mistakes and missteps, and speed up our trajectory towards success.

Fail fast… when it comes to the small things

There’s a lot of hype around “failing fast” and “pivoting”, which essentially means making mistakes quickly, doing an about turn and moving on. This can be good advice, but I’d like to caution against applying it in all situations.

There are some things in life where slow and steady pays off. These include developing relationships, investing in people, and strategically working through challenges that potentially stand in the way of success. It’s not worth failing at something that could be great and then giving up immediately (just ask SpaceX about the value of perseverance!).

Failing fast comes into play when it comes to details, for example, testing something on your target audience. Go for it! They don’t like it? Okay, move on.

The trick is to fail quickly and early on – before you spend time and resources on something that’s not going to work. It’s like rapid prototyping. It’s about creating something, figuring out its flaws, swiftly editing those out and moving on to the next iteration.

Try not to take it personally (and help your people to do the same)

As I said before, none of us wants to fail. But if we can learn not to let failure make us mope, we can take a lesson out of each failure and quickly move on to the next step in the journey to success. If, however, we spend too long dwelling on the disappointment that failure naturally brings with it, we can lose our motivation to keep pressing forward.

It’s also important to create a culture in your organisation that allows for failure and risk-taking, and one where people are comfortable sharing their failures as well as their successes.

Many great leaders have said that the best lessons are learnt in the tough times. By cultivating an environment where failure is seen as a natural part of the path to success, you can help your organisation to avoid weighing down its people with the overwhelming pressure to succeed immediately. This in turn will ensure happier, more productive and more inventive employees who are able to think innovatively and challenge the status quo in healthy ways. In a nutshell: learn to avoid the blame game and teach your people to do the same.

Stop thinking in black and white

We tend to think of failure and success as binary terms. Instead, we should learn to see them as sitting on a spectrum. At one end of the scale sits disastrous failure (imagine your first product on the market needs to be recalled because of safety concerns). At the other end sits ultimate success (your company invents a cure for a dread disease overnight). Not many businesses will spend much time hovering around those extreme ends of the spectrum.

Generally, most of the time will be spent somewhere towards the middle. We need to learn to recognise that occasionally dipping towards the failure side does not normally mean disaster, and that it might actually be a stepping stone towards the success side of the scale. In short, we need to learn a very important lesson from Einstein – a different kind of relativity.


F.R. (Rhys) Robinson, PhD is Executive Director, Infinitus Reporting Solutions (Pty) Ltd.

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