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There's a Fortune in Failure

By Gary Bradt, PhD 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.

      4. Manage fear before it manages you. Perhaps nothing holds people back as much as fear. Fear is your natural protection against threats to physical survival. Too often, however, fear is triggered when physical survival is not an issue. No one is going to die if your promotion doesn’t come through. Physical harm won’t follow if your idea gets shot down at a meeting. You won’t lose an appendage if you return from your sales call empty-handed. Heck, even getting fired doesn’t mean it’s the end of the world. Just because fear often gets triggered in these situations doesn’t mean you have to succumb to it. Gather yourself, take a deep breath, tell yourself you’re okay, and go about taking your next step forward, whatever it may be. Don’t let your autonomic nervous system convince you that you are about to get eaten by a tiger when you’re not. Learn to control your fear, or it will end up controlling you.

      5. Stay in the moment. “What if?” can be a very useful question for anticipating scenarios and stirring creativity. “What if you doubled market share next quarter? What if you could take the best aspects of your competitors’ products and roll them into yours? What if you could use your expertise to aid the less fortunate in your community?” All good questions. Unfortunately, too often, your internal dialogue goes more like this: “What if I say something dumb at the meeting, and everyone laughs and decides I’m stupid? What if the economy takes a turn for the worse? What if the company gets bought out and I lose my job?” You begin to imagine negative what-if scenarios and put so much mental energy into them that you have little left over for more positive endeavors, and failures mount. To counter this trend, notice when you are becoming anxious. Then, pay attention to your thoughts. Likely, you have mentally raced ahead to some scary place that doesn’t exist. Bring yourself back to the here and now. Ask yourself, “What’s going on right here, right now?” It’s likely not nearly as bad as what you were imagining. Dealing with the realities of the moment will help you avoid creating unnecessary failures in the future.

Think again
      If fear of failure is holding you back from pursuing your dreams or accomplishing your goals, challenge yourself to think again. Specifically, rethink how you think about failure itself, and its relationship to your self-concept. Often, failure is a first and necessary step toward discovering your fortune; it points the way to success. Perhaps Henry Ford put it best: “Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.”

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