“Double check your answers,” we’re told in school. “You don’t want a bad grade.”
“Better achieve your performance goals,” we’re told at work. “You don’t want to get a poor rating or low raise, be demoted or lose your job.”
Failure seems to come with negative consequences. Really? Always?
The fallacy of playing it safe
So much is written about success and how to achieve it. Virtually nothing is written about failure and how to exploit it.
Failure is the bogeyman. (I don’t think there ever was a bogeywoman, but I can’t be sure!) We’re taught to hide from him, stay out of his way, dodge the bullets he fires at us, and to try our best to outwit him.
Fearing failure is like playing not to lose. Sports commentators criticize teams on the verge of victory that try to hang on to their leads through conservative play, safe shot making, and “killing the clock.” Fans don’t like it either.
Why? Because most of the time, when teams play not to lose, they end up losing.
Winners go for broke. They sense the moment when everything is set up for a make or break effort. Then they go for it. When they’re right, everyone cheers. When wrong, heartbreak!
You don’t have to be an athlete to share in this experience. Every time you accept a new job, take on a project, or recommend an initiative, you put your career on the line. As a result, you position yourself to play to win or not to lose.
Failure and success are both the bedfellows of risk.
- Lost your job or didn’t get hired
- Got a poor evaluation or no raise
- Had your program turned down or your funding request rejected
- Realized your product didn’t sell or your business went belly up
People do a lot of unhelpful things to dull the pain of failure like:
- Getting loaded or sleeping for hours
- Moping, railing, and beating themselves up
- Giving up on their goals
- Selling themselves on the futility of regaining what was lost
What we should do is simple but challenging:
- Self-assess (or re-assess)
- Get going
When we’re at our lowest, we’re in the best position to consider work that makes us happy and then go for it. After all, there’s not much left to lose when we’re at the bottom.
Stay in the game
J. K. Rowling, author of the best-selling Harry Potter book series, talked about her own experiences with abject failure (poverty, depression, loneliness, and rejection) during her Commencement Address at Harvard in 2008.
Her advice about the fringe benefits of failure is invaluable: She says,
“It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.”
“Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. “
“The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive.”
Like Rowling, we need to accept that we can move from any low point to a higher one. To do that, we must continue to stay in the game, playing hard to win. Our business fitness gives us a platform to build from. On any given day, we may lose a game or a challenge, but if we continue to contend, we can achieve what we’ve set out to do. Now it’s time to suit up!
What has been your most disappointing career failure? How did you deal with it? Any tips for us? Thanks.