Look at Failure as Your Friend

When you think about, imagine, or hear the word FAILURE, does your heart sink? Do you droop your head or get angry and frustrated? If you don’t, you’re in the minority of folks who can see and react to failure as a new opportunity to try again and again, thinking more like Thomas Edison when he said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work." Ice hockey legend, Wayne Gretsky, reminded us that "We miss 100% of the shots we don't take." The truth is that most people, and certainly most leaders, don’t think about failure in a very positive way.

We have all succeeded and failed. Let’s see…recently, I failed to drive the correct speed, and that cost me a lot! And just last weekend, I failed to get a golf ball to do anything I wanted it to about 80% of the time. None of this is earth-shattering, although my blood pressure sometimes goes up when things don’t happen the way I hope, expect, or want them to. I need to prod myself to remember, tomorrow really IS another day and another chance for those wrongs to go right.

I have noticed that fear of failure runs a close second to the fear of dying for some people. Consider this – the fear of giving feedback to your boss can go like this in under-a-second: “If I give my boss feedback, he/she might not like it and fire me; if I’m fired I won’t have any money; if I don’t have any money, I can’t buy food; if I don’t have food, I’ll die.” Snap! Just like that we’ve equated the risk of telling our truth to the boss to…dying! How did that happen? It happens because the amygdala in our brain sends us all kinds of fear signals, rational or not. Unless we stop, pay attention, and put other parts of our brain to work, we’ll keep letting fear of failure rule too much in our lives.

No one succeeds at anything, even their best skill set, all the time. Absolutely NO ONE. Think about it.

I’m not making light of failure – big ones are hugely costly and painful to us, our businesses, our relationships, and our world. Still, the power we give that word in our day-to-day lives, needs to be in context and put into rational perspective. While some failures carry more baggage than others, some would say, they can also carry more opportunity. It’s a choice point every time we and/or those we lead, “fail.” How do YOU choose to respond? What good can YOU gain from your failures?

It’s up to each of us to choose whether or not to make a paradigm shift. We know it’s impossible to experience joy without knowing sadness or appreciate the calm without ever having seen the storm. Yet, we can fall into the trap of telling ourselves that if we don’t risk much we can’t fail much. Is that really true? Well, it depends on what you want and need out of your relationships and career. The phrase, “No pain, no gain,” has its roots in this very premise.

Failure can be our friend when we take a deeper look. After all, when children learn to walk and talk, they fail constantly. We happily cheer their successes, but let’s remember, it’s all those failures that got them up on two feet in the end. JK Rowling was turned down as a “failed” children’s book writer multiple times. I’m sure you all have at least as many examples of successful “failures” as I do. It’s how we grow – and I like to grow, and so do most people.

Remember my ticket for speeding? It sent me a huge message. I need to pay closer attention to the present moment; I need to slow down about 20%, and I need to give myself a chance to live longer! My gratitude for that ticket may surprise most people, but I actually thanked the Officer because I knew he saved me from myself this time!


1. LISTEN AND LEARN: Encourage feedback on results, and hear concerns. Consider every failure, every mistake, to be a learning opportunity.

2. AGILITY: Expect and encourage agility and flexibility to move from a non-working idea to a possible one.

3. SHARE: Take time to share what you've learned, and the mistakes you've made, to help prevent repeats and others having to re-invent your wheel.

4. TEST: Pilot test new ideas and projects and welcome mistakes and failures that show up.

5. SAFETY: Make it safe for people to experiment and fail within reasonable ranges. You may have heard the words ‘fail forward” and you may even agree that’s a laudable goal. Well, it’s far more than a goal; it’s a state of mind. If we try something and it doesn’t work, we now know something we didn’t know before. We can be delighted in that learning or we can beat up ourselves or others. It’s way more life-affirming to be delighted and appreciate the opportunity to move forward and try something new, get creative, and see what happens next.


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