B-29 US Army Air Corps Guam 1944-45

B-29 US Army Air Corps Guam 1944-45. My father is on the far left.

During a conversation with one of my sons several years ago, we were talking about doing a difficult task, not doing it well, but coming through it all with success. It reminded me of my father’s experience during World War II when he landed a B-29 without its running gear down. As they say, any landing you walk away from is a good landing. But more often than not, you don’t walk away unscathed from something you haven’t done well or that has gone wrong. But if you learn from your failures, any failure is a successful failure.

One of the ways to think about getting the most from your failures is to fail fast. Many people use this terminology to describe learning what works and what doesn’t as quickly as possible. When I Googled this term, I discovered that it is a specific function in systems design. 

A fail-fast system is one which immediately reports at its interface any condition that is likely to indicate a failure. Fail-fast systems are usually designed to stop normal operation rather than attempt to continue a possibly flawed process. Such designs often check the system’s state at several points in an operation, so any failures can be detected early. The responsibility of a fail-fast module is detecting errors, then let the next-highest level of the system to handle them. (Wikipedia)

I love this idea, but I look at it another way: It isn’t as much about being failure-tolerant as it is about being change-oriented—as in, “Oh, boy! That didn’t work, so I get to try out something new today!”

Learning from failure accelerates change, leading us toward the impact we want to make. If we have a goal or an ambition in mind, the quicker we learn how to iron out the kinks and make it work, the quicker we achieve the success we are after. People who work in highly complex manufacturing systems understand this. Their error tolerances are minuscule compared to most of ours. Too often, we learn to accommodate our failures by moving on to the next thing, rather than learning from our failures to become better at our initial undertaking.

The point is not to accept failure as a normal part of life and work, but to making that failure a success by learning from it and making the necessary changes to improve and achieve our desired impact.

What Failure Really Shows Us

More than anything, failure shows us our limitations. That is not a bad thing. It provides a boundary from which we can work.

Let’s think of this in physical terms: Years ago, I was rock climbing with some friends. Nothing serious. No equipment. I was under a 10-foot-tall sloping rock shelf that had an opening in it. I thought I’ll crawl through that opening to get on top. When I got up into the hole, I found that the hole had become wider than I was long, and I had no handhold or foothold to go further. There I was, flat out, front side up, with nowhere to go. I was in real trouble. With the help of my friends, I got out of that mess.

This failure taught me a lesson: Be careful. Be secure. Know my limitations and the limitations of my setting. And find an alternate path to top.

Failure also teaches us about fear, more about what we do fear than what we should fear. There is a difference. If we fear failure, what precisely are we afraid of? Are we afraid of humiliation or something worse? Does this fear block us from taking a chance and possibly failing at something? Or, as Gavin de Becker discusses in his book, The Gift of Fear, does our fear help us?

Whatever the case, fear is another one of those limitations that lets us know where we stand. It is a boundary that we either overcome or respect. Both options require courage, humility, and the willingness to change in some way. These qualities enable us to turn our failures into successful learning experiences.

Failing Successfully

Failure, therefore, is just another lesson along the journey of life. As long as you are learning from your mistakes, you aren’t failing. Real failure is quitting or giving up without any expectation of starting over, beginning fresh, or committing yourself to figuring out what went wrong and changing as a result.

To fail successfully is to learn and build upon the lessons of your failure. When success finally comes, when you’ve made the impact you set out to make, your success is sweeter for knowing what was required to get there. So, don’t fear failure. Only fear not taking advantage of the learning opportunities that failure brings your way.

Photo by Ian Schneider on Unsplash

Keynote speaker and leadership consultant Dr. Ed Brenegar is a catalyst for teaching people to think for themselves, to act on their own initiative and to become people of impact within the organizations, communities, and institutions with which they engage. His Circle of Impact model provides the tools for innovative problem-solving, collaboration and planning across social and organizational boundaries by addressing the connected dynamics between ideas, relationships, and structure.

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