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Try and Try Again
Dealing with Failure and Mistakes at Work

October 2014
Roxi Hewertson

Roxi Hewertson

When you think about, imagine or hear the word failure, do you have a negative reaction? Does your heart sink? Do you droop your head or get angry? If you don’t, you’re in the minority of folks who routinely see and react to failure as a new opportunity to try again and again, a bit like Thomas Edison. “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

In my experience most people and certainly most leaders don’t think about failure – at least at first – in a very positive way without a little or a lot of prodding.

I’ve succeeded and I’ve failed a lot lately. We have all succeeded and failed. Let’s see … I failed to drive the correct speed, and that cost me a lot – thanks to a speeding ticket! And recently I failed at getting a golf ball to do anything useful most of the time, but one great putt kept me going! None of this is earth shattering, I’ll admit, although my blood pressure does fluctuate when things don’t happen the way I hope, expect or want them to. I need to prod myself to remember, tomorrow really is another day and another chance for the wrongs to get right.

I have noticed that the fear of failure runs a close second to the fear of dying for a lot of people. Consider this – the fear of giving feedback to your boss equates, for some people, to dying, which is … failing to live. Let me prove it to you. The under-a-second internal dialogue goes like this: “If I give my boss feedback, he/she might not like it and fire me; if I’m fired I won’t have any money; if I don’t have any money, I can’t buy food; if I don’t have food, I’ll die.” Snap! Just like that we’ve equated the risk of telling our truth to the boss to … dying. Wow! How did that happen? It happens because the amygdala in our brain sends us all kinds of fear signals, rational or not. Unless we stop, pay attention, and put other parts of our brain to work, we’ll keep letting fear of failure rule too much in our lives.

No one succeeds at anything, even their best skill set, all the time! Absolutely no one. Think about it.

Given what’s happening in Washington, D.C., these days with the failure to lead, have civil discourse, and find common ground … our frustration and anger with our elected “leaders” looms. And it’s a right mess, no getting around it. I’m not making light of failure – big ones are hugely costly and painful to our businesses, our home life and our world. Still, the power we give that word in our day-to-day lives needs to be in context and put into rational perspective. While some failures carry more baggage than others, some would say that they can also carry more opportunity. It’s a choice point every time we and/or those we lead, “fail.” How do we choose to respond? What good can we gain from our failures?

It’s up to each of us to choose whether or not to make a paradigm shift. We know it’s impossible to experience joy without knowing sadness, or appreciate the calm without ever having seen the storm. We often tell ourselves that if we don’t risk much we can’t fail much. Is that really true? Well, it depends on what you want and need out of your relationships and career. The phrase, “No pain, no gain,” has its roots in this very premise.

How about we look at failure, at least in our daily lives, as life practice, learning, a pilot project, as experimentation, or even a legitimate part of any innovation process? Failure can be our friend when we take a deeper look. After all, when children learn to walk and talk, they fail constantly. We happily cheer their successes, but let’s remember – it’s all those failures that got them up on two feet in the end. JK Rowling was turned down as a “failed” children’s book writer 12 times; I’m sure you all have at least as many examples of successful “failures” as I do.

Remember my ticket for speeding? It sent me a huge message. I do need to pay closer attention to the present moment. I do need to slow down about 20 percent, and I do need to give myself a chance to live a lot longer! My gratitude for that ticket may surprise most people, but I actually thanked the officer because I knew he saved me from myself, at least this time! I95