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There's a Fortune in Failure

By Gary Bradt, PhD
Posted: January 30, 2008, from the February 2008 issue of Skin Inc. magazine.

It took Thomas Edison more than 1,000 tries to get the lightbulb just right. Yet, how many people give up if they don’t nail something perfectly the first time? The best baseball hitters in the game fail approximately two out of every three times they step up to the plate. Still, how many won’t step up and try something new unless success can be ensured first? The problem is how you think about yourself in relation to failure and its consequences. This article will challenge you to change the way you think about failure, and, in the process, change the way you think about yourself.

Failure equals success
      Failure can be the fast track to success if you recognize and use it the right way. It’s all in how you choose to size it up. Following are five ways to think about failure, and how to manage it. Embracing these concepts will help ensure long-term success in all of your endeavors, both in business and in life.

      1. Define failure as learning. When a toddler falls down, do we say, “Man, he really messed up!” or, more likely, “Wonderful, he’s learning to walk!” However, when you fall down—blow the sales pitch, get passed over for the promotion, lose your job—often you feel as though you’ve failed. Worse yet, you may define yourself as a failure. It is better to view failure as a temporary and necessary step on the way to where you want to be. Just like falling down is a predictable and inevitable process for a toddler learning to walk, so, too, are the occasional failures that occur along the way to success in whatever you attempt. In fact, it’s hard to improve if you don’t fail, because lack of success delineates clearly where opportunities for improvement lie. So, when you do fall down, don’t label yourself a failure. Instead, recover quickly from temporary disappointments by asking “What can I learn from this? What worked and what didn’t? How can I do it better next time?” Then, follow the toddler’s example: Get up with a smile on your face and try again, knowing you are better for the experience.

      2. Manage expectations, yours and theirs. Sometimes the problem with failure lies in unrealistic expectations when trying something new. People expect everyone to embrace a new strategy after a single roll-out meeting. You anticipate the new model-year car to perform as well as the old one that hadn’t changed for several years. You assume clients will flock to your latest and greatest product immediately. Rarely, however, are such scenarios the case. John Kotter, an authority on leadership and change, says that leaders exponentially under-communicate the need for change. Newly revised products often have bugs, and wary clients often have to be convinced over time that what is offered meets their needs and interests. Perception about failure on the back-end can be reduced or eliminated by managing expectations on the front-end. Begin new ventures with optimism tempered by realism, and help your constituents—both co-workers and clients—do the same. Anticipate that there will be problems, and let everyone know you will be ready to solve them. That way, when issues do arise, they will help reinforce your credibility instead of damaging it. And, problems won’t lead you and others to assume failure. Rather, they will be viewed for what they are—road signs pointing the way to progress.

      3. Stop trying to be perfect. Sports psychologist Bob Rotella, PhD, wrote a helpful little book called Golf is Not a Game of Perfect (Simon & Schuster, 1995). Golf is not a game of perfect, and neither is business, or just about any other venture you might imagine, for that matter. Trying to be perfect can keep you from attempting new and untested methods for reaching your goals. The valuable experiments that ultimately lead to success will never happen if you are afraid to try them in the first place. In a vain effort at perfection, you might freeze up and keep whatever natural talent you have from taking over. Rather than striving for perfection, strive for action—bold, resolute action in the direction of your goals. You can make mid-course corrections as you go, but you’ll never have the chance if you don’t get started. Aiming for perfection is fine; expecting it, however, is unrealistic. Let your unrealistic expectations of perfection go and your results will start to flow.