For the last few days I have been consumed with Failure. Now, this might seem a weird one for a Company that prides itself on helping individuals to step into their greatness and bring their whole selves to work but grab a cup of Earl Grey Tea, as this could be a long one as we start to scratch the surface of this vast plain together.
We all know that for us to fully show up in this world, we have to embrace all of ourselves, not just the good or positive aspects of self, but fully embrace it all; the good, the bad and in some cases, the downright ugly.
Now on that note I don´t want to incite a riot of employees feeling that they NEED to bare everything at every opportunity, but in the case of failure I think in the sharing with others there are some important lessons for us all, so why do we still hold back?
Maybe because we only hear of the positive aspects of failure when people are on the other side of it. When they have navigated the ups and downs of failure and hit the golden grail of success. In fact, it has become so common for us to hear the stories of how people went from rags to riches, it would seem that there is only value in you failing, if you ultimately succeed.
But I personally I don´t believe that´s true, surely failure in itself is a valuable and useful lesson. As Thomas Edison stated to a journalist when asked about failing back in 1920 when he was creating the lightbulb, “I didn´t fail 1,000 times. The lightbulb was an invention with 1,000 steps”.
So why is there such a negative bias surrounding it even 100 years later, especially when we are all essentially hard wired from birth, to fail. If we hadn´t become experts at failing we would all still be lying flat on our backs, unable to sit, crawl, walk, speak and feed ourselves.
So how can we change the understanding of failure, so ordinary people have permission to fail too?
In order to delve into this process, and I am just scrapping the surface at this point, I think we have to observe some of the key aspects that might make failure more or less acceptable.
Many of us may agree that it is more acceptable for entrepreneurs like Elon Musk or Richard Branson to fail than it is for an employee. However, this raises the question of why. Does their reputation of pushing the boundaries of what is possible lead us to assume that they must fail as often as they succeed? Is it because of their standing in the business world or the world at large? Or is it simply due to the context in which they operate?
Are there certain contexts where failure is more acceptable than others? If we compare the context of a scientist breaking new ground in an experiment, with what we know of experiments, we might be led to believe that there might be many failures as there are successes, as they adapt and mould the experiment to finally achieve the outcome that they want. If we apply that same principle to a brain surgeon who is also experimenting with a ground-breaking new procedure, what would failure look in that scenario and is it now still as acceptable, probably not, and this brings us to the stakes.
The acceptability of failure can be influenced by the stakes involved. For instance, in the case of a fighter pilot who ejects from an 85-million-pound fighter jet after failing to steady the plane during a manoeuvre and causing a crash, the financial cost of the failure would be considered very high. On the other hand, for someone who has lost everything, failure can be a source of motivation for change, as they continually attempt to alter the trajectory of their lives through adaptation and learning from their mistakes.
When considering failure, it’s important to acknowledge the preconceived biases that can influence our perception of when it’s acceptable or not. For example, we may have seen videos of babies covered in food as they learn to feed themselves, with parents laughing and approving of their messy attempts. However, when children grow older, their failures may no longer bring joy to their parents, but rather frustration, anger, and criticism, as they are expected to know better. Age is just one bias that can impact our views on failure, but there are also biases related to gender, race, and other factors that can manifest in the workplace and in life
Navigating the landscape of failure has consumed my every waking hour over the last few days and one of the things I am crystal clear is that something needs to change surrounding our perceptions of it. It needs to be something that isn´t avoided at all costs and instead its seen for what it truly is, a micro step in the direction of what works and what doesn´t, that may or may not bring us to the outcome we desire.