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Learning from Failure

  • December 1, 2021
  • Written by Community Futures Meridian

“Failure should be our teacher, not our undertaker. Failure is delay, not defeat. It is a temporary detour, not a dead end. Failure is something we can avoid only by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing.” - Denis Waitley

In their Nobel Prize-winning research work, psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky explain why we are so averse to failure. They discovered that the effect of loss is twice as great as the gain from a win; this explains why so many of us have an inherent fear of failure and a propensity to avoid experiencing a loss or a failure.

“There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure.” - Paulo Coelho

How do you convert a fear of failure into a productive learning experience? What strategies could you employ to ensure you learn from your failures? How can you recognize that they are part of your move toward success and not a punishment?

A professor at Harvard Business School, Amy Edmondson, categorizes mistakes into three broad areas: preventable, complexity-related, and intelligent. She also talks about mistakes or failures as being on a spectrum from blameworthy to praiseworthy.

Mistakes considered blameworthy are preventable as they relate to procedures that are tried and true. When one tries to cut corners and deviates from what works best, the result can be catastrophic. We can blame these failures on an individual; they account for a small percentage of failures.

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” - Thomas A. Edison

With complexity-related and intelligent mistakes or failures, we are dealing with complicated situations or experimentation and research. These mistakes fall mainly within the spectrum of praiseworthy and account for the vast majority of failures that can lead to learning, and in time succeeding.

It is essential to recognize that failure is part of the equation when striving for success. A baby falls many times before standing and walking. Everyone needs to try things without fear of recrimination. When assigning tasks to other people, you have to realize that trial and error, in many situations, is the way they will learn and master. Look at each case individually and understand and recognize the characteristics of failure. If failure is preventable or even dangerous, then you should address those factors. At other times, letting people fail provides them with valuable learning opportunities.

From which failures have you learned the most?  How can these failures help in your future successes? What can you do to ensure that failure leads to learning and not an embarrassment?

“Failure comes part and parcel with invention. It’s not optional. We understand that and believe in failing early and iterating until we get it right.” – Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon

Paul Abra, Motivated Coaching

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