First Posted August 31, 2012.
During a conversation with one of my sons the other day, we were talking about doing things that are hard, not doing them well, and then coming through it all with success. Reminded me of my father's experience during the Second World War of landing in a B-29 without its running gear down. As they say, any landing you walk away from is a good landing. You could say that any failure you learn from is a good failure.
One of the ways to talk about this is to "fail-fast." Lots of people use this terminology as a way to more quickly learn what works and what doesn't. What I did not realize until a minute ago when I Googled the term, trying to track down where I first heard it, was that it is a specific function in systems theory. Here's a description from Wikipedia.
"A fail-fast system is designed to immediately report at its interface any failure or condition that is likely to lead to failure. Fail-fast systems are usually designed to stop normal operation rather than attempt to continue a possibly flawed process. Such designs often check the system's state at several points in an operation, so any failures can be detected early. A fail-fast module passes the responsibility for handling errors, but not detecting them, to the next-higher system design level."
I really love this idea. But you have to be, not so much fail-tolerant, but change oriented. Change as in, "Oh, boy, I get to learn something new today!"
Learning from failure is a way to accelerate change processes. If we have a goal or an ambition in mind, the quicker we learn how to make it work, the quicker we get to our goal. People who work in highly complex manufacturing systems understand this. Their error tolerances are miniscule compared to most of us. We learn to accommodate our failures, too often, by not learning from them and becoming better. The point is not to accept failure as a normal part of life and work, but to learn from it and change to be better.
What does failure really show us?
More than anything it shows us our limitations. That is not a bad thing. It provides a boundary from which we can work. It is easy to think of this in physical terms.
Years ago I was rock climbing with some friends. Nothing serious. No equipment. Just climbing around. I was under a sloping rock shelf about 10 feet tall that had an opening in it. I thought, I'll crawl up and out to get on top. It was the sort of thing that I had always done as a kid climbing trees and things.
As I got up into the hole, I found that I was going into a hole that became wider as I climbed through. Wider than I was long. No place to place both my hands and feet. I found myself flat out, front side up, with nowhere to go. I was in real trouble. With the help of friends, I got myself out of that mess.
This fast failure taught me a lesson. Be careful. Be belayed. Know my limitations and the limitations of the setting that I am in.
Failure also teaches us about fear. More about what we do fear, rather than what we should fear. There is a difference.
If we fear failure, what precisely are we afraid of?
Are we afraid of humiliation or something worse?
Does this fear block us for taking a chance, to possibly fail at something?
Or does our fear help us, as Gavin De Becker shows in his book, The Gift of Fear.
Fear is another one of those limitations that lets us know where we stand. It is a boundary that we either overcome or respect. Both require courage and humility.
Courage here is persistence in the face of limitations and challenges that face us. It is the kind of character that is needed to learn from failure.
Failure, therefore, is just another lesson along the journey of life. As long as you are learning from your mistakes, it really isn't failure. Failure in this sense is really quitting, giving up, without any expectation of starting over, beginning fresh or recommitting to figuring out what went wrong.
What is the relation of failure to success?
This is an on-going conversation that my friend Tom Morris and I have had over the years. Succeed too easily or at too young an age, and you may not have a full appreciation for what you've gained. To fail successfully is to learn and build upon the lessons of failing. When success finally comes, it is sweeter for knowing what was required to get there.
So, my friends, never fear failure. Only fear not taking advantage of the opportunity to learn that failure brings our way.