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To succeed properly, allow yourself to fail

Mar 02, 2014 Success, Sunday Nation

My son was fired from his job the other day. And his father was delighted.

He’s only ten years old. And the ‘job’ was as manager of a leading football team. In a popular video game.

I spent time earlier this week with successful entrepreneurs, listening to their life stories. And here’s the thing about the ones who succeed truly: they’re also full of failures.

Yes, failures. That unmentionable word, the one that’s suppressed and repressed, never referred to. The things we try so hard to pretend never happened. Failures.

The thing is this. If you are successful in some field of activity today, consider carefully what it is that has made you good at what you do. Trace back your own history carefully, and you will see that the the biggest contributor to success is failure.

We learn our deepest lessons when we fail at something. Those who have enjoyed ‘overnight success’ are the least likely to keep on being successful. Success that comes from patronage, corruption or just dumb luck doesn’t leave any lasting lessons in its wake. That is why some of our most prominent ‘success’ stories in this part of the world are also the least likely to teach anything worth knowing.

True success comes from learning. True learning comes from setbacks. Setbacks come from risks. So when we play safe, we fail to let learning happen.

Today, in this world full of disruptive change and ever-morphing business and technology landscapes, that’s even more true than ever. You’re not going to make it by playing safe. You’re going to make it by trying things out, and failing at some of them.

Failures build resilience. Understanding and accepting failure fosters a culture of innovation. Resilience and innovation are attributes we all need in our lives, in our organizations, and in our children’s futures. Failure is what Joseph Schumpeter called ‘creative destruction’. Economists know that failure at the level of the individual component strengthens the system as a whole.

But failure stings. It makes us feel many sharp emotions, like shame and inadequacy. It reduces our self-esteem and makes us want to hide away from the world. Our fear of these feelings makes us avoid risk, avoid mistakes, avoid experimentation. Most of us play safe, and we pass this behaviour on to our children.

Don’t scar yourself for your failures. Don’t scar your children. Don’t scar anyone. Those are badges of honour. They reveal a person who took some chances and tried to do new things. If you’re going to have any shot at changing the world, you aren’t going to do it sitting at the same desk doing the same things in the same way.

Every little failure will sting, of course it will. Use the sting to develop wisdom, not to stop trying. Don’t tell your children not to fail. Tell them to learn. Be neither exhilarated by success nor dampened by failure. See both for what they are, and keep going. My boy, after recovering from the shock of his ‘sacking’ joined a lesser team, learned from his errors, and bounced back.

Mistakes? You’ll make them all your life. Learn the lesson they contain, learn it hard, and keep going. Your making a mistake is not a problem; your reaction to making it could well be.

Now this is not a recommendation to abandon all prudence, throw caution to the winds and seek to fail. Embracing failure is not the point; understanding it is. Success and failure are just two faces of the same coin. The coin is you. Sometimes you show ‘heads,’ sometimes ‘tails’. Both faces are you. Don’t keep one face hidden.

Here’s the thing about people who make it in the end. They don’t just try to win; they learn to lose. But they lose well, with grace, with apology, with introspection, and with the gumption to do better.

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