How to fail well
Learning how to fail well is the key to success, discovers Luciana Bellini
How do you feel about failure? Is it a necessary part of life – an inevitable pit stop on the path to success? Or something to be avoided at all costs, because you wallow in guilt and regret when you experience it? Do you know how to fail well?
Failure is something we encounter throughout our lives, personally and professionally. The challenge is not to avoid it. The challenge is to ensure we know how to fail well.
That’s the premise behind Amy Edmondson’s new book Right Kind of Wrong: Why Learning to Fail Can Teach Us to Thrive. The author, an influential psychologist, helps people and organisations learn, so they can thrive in a world that keeps changing. She draws on her research into the science of ‘psychological safety’, which shows that the most successful cultures are those in which you can fail openly. It’s an eye-opening read that illustrates how often we get failure wrong – and reveals the things we need to change to fail well.
It starts, Edmondson writes, ‘with understanding that not all failures are created equal. Some failures can rightly be called bad. Other failures are genuinely good.’ She identifies three archetypes: simple, complex and intelligent. Simple failures – those caused by slip-ups and mistakes – can generally be avoided with care.
Complex failures are those that have ‘multiple causes and often include a pinch of bad luck, too. These unfortunate breakdowns will always be with us, due to the inherent uncertainty and interdependence we face in our day-to-day lives.’
The third type – ‘intelligent’ – are those that Edmondson refers to as ‘good’ failures. Often found in the realm of science, these are the ones that are part and parcel of the quest for ground-breaking medical discoveries – or, to give a more prosaic example, the merry-go-round of bad dates we endure before finding the right person. ‘Intelligent failures are the only type genuinely worth celebrating,’ writes Edmondson. ‘We must welcome this type of failure as part of the messy journey into new terrain, whether it leads to a life-saving vaccine or a life partner.’
Identifying types of failure isn’t difficult. What’s hard is making sure we learn the valuable lessons they have to offer. And that we practice the art failing well Anyone who achieves the heights of success will tell you that failure is a necessary part of the journey. ‘It is impossible to live without failing at something,’ J.K. Rowling said in a Harvard commencement address, ‘unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.’ Then there’s Billie Jean King’s memorable quip: ‘For me, losing a tennis match isn’t failure. It’s research.’
Self-examination and self-awareness are de rigueur in today’s world. So it seems bizarre that failure still carries such stigma. ‘We put off the hard work of reflecting on what we did wrong,’ Edmondson writes. ‘We’re reluctant to admit that we failed in the first place. We’re embarrassed by our failures and quick to spot those of others… Most of us go out of our way to avoid experiencing failure, robbing ourselves of adventure, accomplishment and even love.’
We live in a culture that purports to celebrate failure – just look at the phenomenal success of journalist Elizabeth Day’s How to Fail books and podcast. But we also live in a culture that obsesses over success and puts it on an unattainable pedestal. ‘Failure is embarrassing,’ observes Emma Gannon, author of The Success Myth. ‘Failure makes you feel hot with shame. Failure does not win awards. Failure does not look good on Instagram. We need to be hopeful and realistic and keep creating even if it might fail. Even when it does fail.’
So how to fail well? First, says Edmondson, we need to understand our limits: ‘If we want to go beyond superficial lessons, we need to jettison a few outdated cultural beliefs and stereotypical notions of success. We need to accept ourselves as fallible human beings and take it from there.’
This acceptance is key: ‘Thriving as a fallible human being also means learning to fail well: preventing basic failures as often as possible, anticipating complex ones so as to prevent or mitigate them, and cultivating the appetite for more frequent intelligent failures.’
Another way to fail well is by recognising failure as an opportunity to acquire knowledge and to adapt. ‘If you’re not failing, you’re not journeying into new territory,’ notes Edmondson. ‘Every kind of failure brings opportunities for learning and improvement.’ As Gannon writes, of the perceived flop of her first book, ‘How can something be a failure, when it resulted in so much growth?’
The key to making failure work in our favour is taking the time to learn the lessons it can teach us and what it truly means to fail well. ‘Acknowledging our shortcomings requires and builds wisdom,’ says Edmondson. ‘Wisdom allows us to know that we’ve done as well as we can, and confronting ourselves will always be the hardest part of failing well. Also, the most liberating.’
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