Failing well

“Failure is not an option, it’s a necessity.” 

“Without failure there can be no innovation.”

“Behind every success are hundreds of failures. You cannot have success without failure.”

I know this stuff.

Yes it encourages me to know that I have permission to fail. But there’s still a part of me that wants to stick my fingers in my ears and go ‘la la la’ when it comes to facing and embracing failure.

Because failure sucks. It hurts. It costs. It feels bad.

Like when I was teaching my son to ride his bike. Every time he fell off, I knew he needed to get back on, and every time he got back on he got a bit better. But falling off still hurts.

So what choice did he have? Avoid the bike, avoid the hurt and give up altogether? Failure wins. Or ignore the hurt, get back on the bike, hoping he wouldn’t fall off again. Denial

Hang on, is there a third choice? Learn to fall well. Ditch the bike before you hit the ground. Minimise the damage…

That got me thinking – what if I aimed to fail well? What would that look like?

Let’s start with what it doesn’t look like

It doesn’t look like what psychologist Henry Cloud describes as the 3 P’s of learned helplessness…

Imagine something bad happens. Sales call goes wrong. Product launch fails. Client is unhappy. Date night turns into an almighty row.

This is what a lot of us do in response:

Make it Personal – It’s my fault. I’m not good enough. I am a failure.

Make it Pervasive – It’s not just this one call. It’s every call. Nobody wants to buy from me. Nothing I do works. Everything sucks.

Make it Permanent – It’s always like this. Nothing ever works. It will always be this way. All the time.

Yes failure hurts, but it hurts a hell of a lot more when we make it personal, pervasive and permanent.

What’s more, doing it this way strips away our belief, hope and courage – things we need in abundance if we are to recover from failure and get back in the saddle.

How to do it instead?

Clarity – Well, Henry Cloud calls it Log and Dispute but I like alliteration so I’m calling it Clarity. Clarity about what happened. Clarity about what that means. Clarity about who you are.

Log down everything you find yourself thinking about the event itself and what that means. Log down the personal, pervasive and permanent, and challenge those assumptions.

Pay particular attention to statements that begin with ‘I am’. Remember failure is an event, not a person.

e.g. “I’m not good enough”

Really? What happened? Who says you’re not good enough? What about all the things that have gone well? All the testimonials you have from happy clients? All the reasons why you are good enough?

One person didn’t like what you did. What was it they didn’t like exactly? What can you do about that? What do you want to do about that? Is it a failing by their measure or yours?

That one conversation that went wrong. What actually happened? What words were said in what way? What impact did they have? What else was going on at the time?

Be clear and objective about what happened. Remind yourself what you are good at, what your measures of success are, and reasons why you are perfectly capable of getting back in the saddle.

Control – Learned helplessness starts when something happens outside of your control. The way to counter this is to recognise where you can take control.

As the serenity prayer goes, “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”

One of the exercises I use with clients facing overwhelm works on separating what they can control from the things they can’t, so that they can choose to focus their energy where they can actually make a difference.

Connection – Henry Cloud says, “the human brain survives on three things: oxygen, glucose and relationships.”

When we connect with others our perspectives change. We find new solutions to old problems and we new strength to fight ongoing battles.

Falling off a bike hurts, yes, but is far more painful if you have to do it on your own. Having support, accountability, encouragement, someone to cheer you on, help you back up, empathise with your pain and rally you back on the bike – that makes the biggest difference.

But it has to be the right people. Falling off a bike in front of someone who just laughs, criticises or belittles you would be worse than doing it on your own.

As another great thinker Brene Brown helpfully defines,

Feedback is sitting on the same side of the table and looking at the issue together.

Not sitting opposite someone with the problem between you.

And I love what she says on the subject of personal attacks, criticisms and internet trolls (from personal experience):

“If you are not in the arena, getting your butt kicked, I am not interested nor open to your feedback.”

As Theodore Roosevelt said:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” 

Who is in the arena with you? Who is learning alongside you, putting themselves out there, daring greatly, falling well, and getting back up again?

Who shares the same values and measures of success as you? After all, we don’t all have the same definition of success.

Whose feedback do you value? Whose feedback really counts?

What would it take to fail well?

For me this is still a work in progress – and putting this post up is part of that work. But here goes, as a starter for ten:

1. Face it head on: We will fall, there’s no point denying it. Be clear about what happened. Face up to the situation objectively.

2. No distortions: Don’t make it personal, pervasive and permanent.

3. Hold onto your truths: who you are, what success looks like to you.

4. Focus on what you can control: What you can do to make the situation better? How can you clean this up? What can you learn from it? How quickly will you get back in the saddle?

5. Have friends in the arena: Seek support and genuine feedback from those who count, not just anyone who happens to have an opinion.


That’s what I reckon failing well looks like. What do you think? I’d love to hear your perspective and your stories from your arena.

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