Michael Jordan once said, "I've missed more than 9,000 shots in my career, I've lost almost 300 games. Twenty six times I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over in my life. And that's why I succeed!"
Michael Jordan’s take on failure is very inspiring. Many other legendary leaders—like Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln and Steve Jobs—have made similarly inspiring statements about failure.
Come to think of it, there is a lot of good stuff written about failure. It's common to hear that failure is the stepping stone for success and that you should fail fast. I have read hundreds of quotes, and I like them all. They are all inspiring. So what is not to like about them?
Over the last few months, I have had a lot of discussions with people about failure. Every conversation has been interesting, and surely there are lessons to be learned from every failure.
Recently, I observed a disturbing pattern: a rise in premature failures, based on the assumption that merely increasing the failure stats leads to improving the odds of success. This pattern is dangerous at the least simply because not all failures are equal. Let me explain.
Let’s take the extremely simple example of trying to put a square peg into a round hole. You fail once and you don’t give up. You fail twice and you still don’t give up. This goes on for a dozen times and the odds of succeeding should have increased but nope, they still remain the same. Merely increasing the failure stats rarely improves the odds of success.
Another classic example illustrates a better approach. When Thomas Alva Edison was inventing the light bulb, he tested more than 6,000 items (including bay wood, boxwood, hickory, flax and bamboo) in search of a suitable material for the filament. He tested, adapted and tested some more.
We all know that it’s not even worth comparing the above two approaches. One approach seems idiotic and the other is the epitome of persistence and adaptability. One approach demonstrates failing wrong and the other approach demonstrates failing right.
Let us explore a few of the characteristics that define what it means to fail right.
1. Adaptability. Each failure should trigger you to embrace a better approach for your next attempt.
2. Competence. If you are learning with every failure, your competence must increase with every failure. Your brush with failure should add to your experience.
3. Capability. What you can perform today is constrained by your capacity. That capacity should increase with time. There has to be a measurable difference in your capacity to perform between today and tomorrow or this year and next year. Every failure should increase your capacity for the future.
4. Learning by doing. Reading may provide you with knowledge, but doing is what internalizes that knowledge. A failure due to inaction or laziness won’t help you sharpen your thinking. However, a failure that happens on a worthwhile journey is different because there is real action associated with it. That definitely sharpens your thinking.
5. Confidence. A failure that renews your confidence is way more useful than a failure that saps it. Note that you will have a fair share of both in life, but the value of the former is much higher.
6. Humility. In some cases, you might treat the failure as the result of someone else’s error and let your ego bloat further. That won’t help you in the short-term nor the long-term. A little bit of reset on the ego is always a good thing.
7. Success. A failure that teaches you valuable lessons will make you a better person and should logically increase your odds of success in the future.
So, are you failing right?