Why Failure is Important

09Oct11

Success is celebrated in our culture but with every success comes from setbacks and failures. Understanding then recovering from failure is an important life and business strategy. I am surprised at many functioning adults, who can’t deal with setbacks.

Harvard Business Review devoted a whole issue to understanding and recovering from failure. It grabbed my attention as a leading management journal thought it was important enough to discuss in-depth.One of my take-aways is that some of the population falls into “woe is me” reaction to failure as they are mired in helplessness, frustration and anger when faced with setback. Other responses is to try different strategies or keep persisting. See Seligman and Hiroto’s experiments described in “Building resilience” by Martin E.P. Seligman, Harvard Business Review, April 2011, p.100-106.

Stepping back let’s take a look at a child learning to ride a bicycle, and the process of learning. When I  was learned to riding a bike, I had the motivation to succeed but I also had tools. I needed faith that I would be riding on my two wheels like the other kids, so I would try again after falling. I also had support from my dad who ran along side me to hold the bike. Persistence, desire to succeed, support, encouragement are all tools in the path to achieving goals holding failure at bay, as temporary, local setbacks. Some adults will not view failure as temporary, local or changeable but fall into negative thinking possibly anger and frustration sabotaging themselves. Too often, as adults, we amplify our negative experience and don’t see it as a temporary state.

Part of understanding failures in the workplace is recognizing sadness, anger and frustration as a legitimate first response, then moving to recognize that to amplify those emotions is to a response is that is out of proportion to the threat faced. For example, I get a negative performance evaluation from my supervisor. There are a whole spectrum of potential responses including “I am never going to get a promotion” to “I made a mistake but I will get an action plan from the supervisor to change. I am disappointed but there is next year, and there is time to get back on track.”

I also thought Peter Gruber of Mandalay Entertainment’s story about Muhammed Ali getting knocked down on the mat and asking himself “what next?” was a great narrative about how to bounce back. Ali did just that and went on to win his boxing match. For us, in life and business, we learn to be an active player in your own rescue not being afraid to fail. Also the power of self-talk has the intent to motivate one that the worst has happened so let’s move up and onwards.

I am not saying that I am perfect as I feel the sting of failure like others, but I dust myself off and tell myself that I can do better.

- Brenda Wong

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