I know. The title of this post is a bit outrageous. So I should clarify: It’s not really failure that’s the key to success. It’s trying. But what happens is that we are often so afraid to fail that we end up being afraid to try.

I believe that if we learn to shift our mindset to actually viewing failure as a positive thing, it would open up so much room for growth. So how can we do that?

  1. Realize that failure is simply a subset of learning.
  2. Aim to try – sometimes we need to change our aim from succeeding, to trying.
  3. Iterate – Try, fail, analyze and repeat.

Failure is Learning

Consider the following:

  • A baby first learning to walk – This process has to have one of the highest initial failure rates known to man. Yet it has one of the highest eventual success rates known to man. Each time babies fail to walk, they get better at it, and they keep trying until they finally walk. Food for thought: babies fail the most and yet they are the best learners.
  • Science – Science and technology have made gigantic leaps and one of the forces behind this is the practice of experimenting. The very basis of an “experiment” is trial and error (and retrial). Notice the “error” part? Failure is expected. The failure is analyzed. Then parameters and assumptions and conditions are adjusted and the experiment is re-tried.
  • Grit – It is often said that the number 1 factor of success is not intelligence or education or luck. It’s grit. Grit is “perseverance and passion for long-term goals” (Wikipedia). In essence, it’s never giving up. The most successful people are the ones that use their failures to propel them to keep trying and trying and trying and trying. And that’s what leads to their success.

These points are serve as examples showing that failure doesn’t hinder success. But it is quitting that makes success impossible. One of the most important things to internalize is that each time we fail, we grow. Now, don’t get me wrong, we shouldn’t aim to fail. But we should note that failure only inhibits growth if you quit. And it can accelerate that growth if we learn from it. Consider this quote:

The master has failed more times than the beginner has even tried.
-Stephen McCranie

The beginner hasn’t failed enough to know how to mitigate failure. Numerous times, the master has failed and then used his failures to improve his craft. Failure can actually bring us closer to our goals. Each time we fail, we grow – we gain information about what doesn’t work. That is experience. That is wisdom. It’s up to us to apply that newly achieved wisdom the next time we try.

Aim to Try

The goal is not to succeed; the goal is to try.

That may sound strange but a big reason that failure demotivates us is actually that we set the bar too high. One of the signs of wisdom is the ability of selective focus and knowing when to focus on the macro vs the micro. We definitely should set ambitious goals. But we need to know when to move our focus to trying the goal as opposed to achieving it.

We are often so focused on the large goal, we forget to celebrate a small, but crucial, milestone – trying. Trying is a huge step in the direction of success. Many people are afraid to try so if you made an attempt then you are already growing and that is to be celebrated. Also, if we focus too much on the result of success, then when we don’t see that result, or if we think that result is unlikely, we get demotivated. But if the goal is to try, then achievement is super easy! Anyone can try.

So focusing on trying instead of success makes us more likely to attempt the task and more likely to feel successful after the attempt, whether we succeed or not… because we achieved the goal of trying.

Iterate

In order to grow, we do need to sometimes change the focus back from trying to succeeding. We can do that when we analyze the trial/failure.

In order to continue on an upward trend, we should analyze the trial to determine what needs to be changed for us to perform better. Then apply that change to the next trial and keep iterating like that until we succeed. The more we try, the better we get.

So here’s the process:

  1. Aim to try – The goal is not to succeed. The goal is to try.
  2. Try
  3. If unsuccessful, remember that failure is learning. Then change the focus back to success. Determine what needs to be changed about the approach to increase the chances of success.
  4. Change the focus back to trying and repeat, applying the changes from the previous step.
    • Note: if we keep trying but we aren’t improving, it’s likely that we are missing something. So remember no woman is an island. Seek help. That is a part of analysis and growth.

I hope this helps us to form a new relationship with failure in our lives.
So next time you fail at something, be happy that you tried, use that failure to improve your next attempt, and say to yourself, “I grew today. That’s dope.”

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