The Value of Failure

First Posted August 31, 2012.

B-29 US Army Air Corps Guam 1944-45. My Father is on the far left.

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.

I was thinking of this after David Pu'u sent me a link to Orianthi's Courage music video.

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.

Bringing the Future into the Present

A generation ago the saying "The Future is Now!" celebrated the presentness of a hope in the future. It foresaw the acceleration of change that compresses our experience of time.   Future-4414647645_1cb7a7e3ca_z

I used to see this frequently in planning projects. The five year plans we'd create, often would take only 18 to 24 months to complete. The sense of time that people had was off kilter. Much more could be done than they imagined. The limiting factor? Seeing beyond the present. Or, to put it another way, being able to identify a future that was truly tangible, beyond the aspirations of today, in which they could root their present actions.

Through these experiences, I often saw its contrasting attitude, not the inability to truly grasp the future, but rather resistance to it. I would hear,"What's wrong with the way we've always done things?"

The traditions and cultural forms, as I wrote about in Bringing the Past into Future, replaced the values that were their inspiration. Instead of a vision of the future, a nostalgia for the golden days of the past provided motivation of resistance to the future rather than engagement.

Whether it is a nostalgia for the past, or a shallow adherence to current organizational fads, the lack of a tangible vision of the future makes it difficult for people and their organizations to develop the adaptive skills needed in a environment of accelerating change. 

Resistance to the Future

A resistance to the future is based in part on the lack of personal confidence to venture into the unknown of the future. It is easier to stay with what is comfortable and known of past ways of doing things. It is also in part how we approach the future, or how we bring our past experience to the task of envisioning the future. It is worth restating what I wrote in The End and the Beginning.

What if our past experience instead of illuminating the future, obscures it? What if the way we have always approached a problem, or the conduct of a single day, or the organization of our work makes it more likely that we end up not accomplishing what we envision? 

If resistance to the future is part confidence, part approach, its also part, the lack of skills in managing change or in knowing how to adapt.

Adapting to the Future already in the Present

To adapt is to change on the fly. It isn't a linear process. It is an emergent process. Each adaptive moment moves into a new context of change. It isn't staying in one place and defending the palace against the barbarian hords of change. It is rather like being in conversation with different aspects of the future, very quickly and progressively.

For example, you walk into a room and within two minutes have a twenty second conversation with a 90 year German World War II veteran, a 10 year old girl from St. Louis in a soccer uniform, a thrity five year old couple from Miami with twin 6 year old boys, the 65 year old Japanese CEO of a global communications business, a 16 year old social entrepreneur from Sri Lanka and your great grandmother.  Each encounter requires you to shift your attention from one person to the next. And if each relationship was intended to go somewhere, then within those twenty seconds, you'd have to quickly be engaged in who they were, find common ground and define a shared responsibility for the relationship in the future.

Sounds daunting. But that is what adapting means. The needed skills are a quiet personal confidence that enables you to be the same person with each of those listed in the example, and a tangible vision of the future that provides a conceptual context for the relationship.

This sort of adaptation goes hand in hand with innovation. It is a learned skill, not a personality trait.

See Social Creatives' Six Habits of Highly Effective Social Entrepreneurs as a model for creating a tangible future in the present.  

Those who are involve in technological innovation work in an arena where adaptation is central to their experience of bringing the future into the present. See my post about 3D printing and watch Tony Atala's TED video on regenerative medicine.

These examples may suggest that these are for extraordinary people in unique places. Yes and No. In one sense this is true. They are extraordinary people, but only because the learned to become extraordinary. They developed the confidence and the capacity to adapt. In another sense, they are no different than you or I. They are just further down the path toward the future than most of us. This is one of the core values behind the children and youth social entrepreneur site, RandomKid: The Power of ANYone, (Disclaimer: I chair the board of RandomKid).

Creating a Vision of a Tangible Future

Ask this question of yourself and your organization.

Are you best days / years ahead of you or behind you?

How you answer that question will determine how you relate to the future.

A tangible future can be difficult to imagine because the past is actually not very tangible either. It is an amalgam of memories and impressions attached to random situations, people and objects that represent to us what we selectively remember our past to be.  One person remembers a conversation one way, and another a different way.

Our remembrance of the past changes day to day. It is constantly shifting. We can remember a traumatic situation that leads us to view the future with bitterness and cynicism.  Then, encounter someone who's perspective sheds light on our experience so that we see it differently. In the space of a few moments, our feelings that our best years are behind us shift to hope and optimism about the future.  All of sudden a tangible future begins to form in our minds.

What has taken place within us? What is the source of this change? It isn't simply the influence of someone's different perspective.

What we've experience is the Future being brought into the Present.  All of a sudden, with a flash insight, we see something in the future which is real. It is tangible. We feel we can reach out and grasp it. We want it. Our sense of purpose and self-confidence in a moment has changed. We are different. We have adapted to a new context, a context where the future is here now.

The Future Begins with an Idea

This question about the relation of time to our lives is one that I've reflected upon for a long time. The relation of the past to the future and of the future to the present exists in time. It also exists outside of time. What we remember about the past that we wish to be a part of our future are conceptions of the way we want our life and work to be.

At the most fundamental level, we are talking about ideas.

Several years ago, I conducted a project with a mid-size corporation to develop a values statement for the company. The planning team was a mixture of mid-level managers, Union leadership and a senior vice president. One of the refrains we heard from the group was, "We want to get back to a time when the company was more like a family."  Over the years, things had changed. The company had gone through a scandal with some top executives. Perception by some was that the company's best years were in the past.

Here's a situation where a rememberance of the past influences people's expectations of the future. For this team, being a family meant something. The question was what does this mean. For not every employee has a positive experience of being a family.  As we went through our process, four ideas came to the front that provided a way to understand the past in order to create the future that they desired.

Those ideas were Respect, Trust, Integrity and Pride. 

It would have been easy to take those words and turn them into slogans for an internal marketing campaign. The result would not have been a tangible future of respect, trust, integrity and pride in practice, but continued cyncism about the role of leadership in the company.

But that is not what happened. The company instituted a program of culture building around these ideas.

The first step was to introduce the values to the whole company through small gatherings of employees where they would participate in a discussion of the values and their historic place in the company.

Next, leadership training was instituted for middle managers so that they could implement or "operationalize" the values within their work areas. The purpose was to make the values of respect, trust, integrity and pride live in the functioning of each department. In effect, the process was equipping new leaders to solve problems and resolve issues before that became to big.

Today, the company is recognized as one of the nation's most trustworthy companies.

I share this story to emphasis a point about what it means to bring the future into the present.

 For many organizations the past is represented by traditions and cultural forms. A cultural form could be any practice that is regularly done in which the original rationale has been lost. The future for those companies consists, in many respects, as an attempt to preserve those traditions and cultural forms into the future.

The alternative is to recognize that behind every tradition or cultural practice is a value that matters or at one time used to matter to people and their organization.

Another key to understanding for how to bring the future into the present is to understand where our values fit in. 

Let me be clear about this. I'm not talking about those values that are divisively used to distinguish one organization or association from another. Those values of the negative other have no place in creating a positive, tangible, sustainable future. They are representative of past traditions and cultural forms that have lost their meaning. I say this primarily in anticipation of the distastful unpleasantness that is about to descend upon our country called a Presdential election.

A tangible future is one where values matter in practice, not just in theory. So, if respect, trust, integrity and pride matter, then they matter in practice. If customers matter, then they matter in practice, not just in advertising copy. If innovation and impact matter, then the organization will adapt to make it possible for those values to make a difference in the future.

In order to understand how a value matters, ask this question.

If this value was functioning at its highest capacity, if it was reaching and sustaining its potential, then what would, 1) it look like if we were to shoot a video of its performance, and, 2) be the change we would see as a result? 

Impact or difference is change. If something changes, it can be measured in some way. What is it that is changing when this value is a living practice in your organization? Can you identify at what level it is operating today? Can you see things to change so that it can grow a little bit more today, tomorrow, next week? If you can, then you are seeing a tangible future being brought into the present.

If you can answer this, then you can envision the future. If you can envision the future in a tangible way, then you can identify what must change to make it happen. This is how the future is brought into the present.

This is true not just about values, but especially of each of the Connecting Ideas - Mission or Purpose, Values, Vision and Impact. Make them tangible for today, then you can see how they will be in the future. Transition Point

When you do, what happens is that old traditions and cultural forms that no longer are empowered by their original values can be discarded, and new ones formed.

This means that you have a reached a definitive transition point in your life and work. A clear point of change that either leads towards decline or advancement.  When you do, it is important that you discard dead traditions and cultural forms in a way that becomes a tangible moment of remembrance in the future. As you do, the values that guide you forward will find new traditions and cultural forms to serve as their vehicle for their practice.

Remember, those traditions and culture forms are nothing more than tools for making our values tangible in our daily life and work. Develop new tools, hold true to your values.

Three Things We Want Now and in the Future

I've written before about my observation that people want three things in their life. They want it to be Personally Meaningful, Socially Fulfilling and Make a Difference that Matters. Ask yourself today the following questions.

1. Where do I find meaning in my life and work? What are the values that matter to me most in what I seek to do each day? What activities do I regularly do that support what is meaningful to me?

2. Who are the people that matter most to me? How am I fulfilled by being with them? What are the values that matter to us? How do we practice them together? What are the traditions and cultural forms that we use to celebrate the values we share with one another?

3. What do I do that I feel makes the greatest difference to people? Where do I see my actions creating change? If I was to continue to develop the confidence and skills to make this difference, what do I see myself doing in the future that is different from today? Am I at a transition point in my life and work as it relates to the impact that I am having?

What then is the tangible future that you can begin to create today?

The Future is Now. The future is an idea, a tangible idea that provides for us a point on the horizon to lead us forward. Our idea is a value or values that defines for us meaning, fulfillment and the difference we can make.  When our idea becomes clear then we know what we must do. And a tangible future becomes a reality that we can reach.

Picture: Attribution Some rights reserved by H.L.I.T.

What's at Stake?

How do you know when you really know someone?

This is a question that I've pondered often over the years. It has usually happened with someone I thought I knew well acted in a way that was inconsistent with the person that I thought I knew.

In one case, a friend walked away from our friendship. And did so with intention and announcement.

In another case, a friend essentially disappeared. Changed jobs, twice; moved, twice, and the links, even those online disappeared.

I've thought about this over the past few days as I've reflected on seeing James Cameron's technological marvel, Avatar. You should see Avatar in 3D. It is an experience that you should have to see how far the digital film technology has come to be able to create the scenes you'll see.

That said, I was disappointed with the film as a story. I sat there in the theater detached from the story. I thought, "What size HD TV will I need to watch this at home." "Imagine Lord of the Rings with this level of visual effect." "Isn't this Dances with Wolves in Space?"  Granted there is an interesting moral question at the heart of the in-story Avatar technology, but the context and story that is wrapped around it is not. It is too much a retread of simplistic themes we've seen elsewhere.

What makes for a compelling story is compelling characters? What makes for a compelling character is the same thing that makes it possible to really know people.

We need to know what is at stake for them. We need to know what they fear losing, not just what they love.

In Avatar, the Stephen Lang character, Colonel Quaritch is a cardboard cutout of every blood-thirsty maniac soldier we seen before.  He is a cartoon caricature of those who are serving in Afghanistan and Iraq right now. We know that because for this Colonel, he has nothing to lose. His only concern is completing his mission. It is what he believes in. We don't really know this man. He's just a vehicle for moving the story along, providing some dramatic contrast between the good guys and the bad guys. As a result, he distracts from the story and makes it less interesting.  It is the real reason that movie Westerns lost favor with the public. Now the setting is outer space.

As a result of watching Avatar, I am rewatching The Lord of the Rings. The story is filled with the realization of what is at stake, of what could be lost, and therefore, what truly matters to people. It is the kind of story that I wish Cameron would have written. Here's a comparison between these two fantasies.

For Frodo Baggins, if he fails in his quest, he not only loses his life, but the Shire as well and all of Middle Earth is lost. Here we see author JRR Tolkien's lament for the loss of the simple human scale values of the medieval world to a modern culture of technology that rules all of us.

For Jake Sully, to foresake his human life to live permanently as a Na'vi seems as normal and simple as changing jobs. Did the world and the people from where he came not mean anything to him? What would his mother say of his choice? Is he just a nice version of Colonel Quaritch, only living to complete the missions given him by his superiors, detached from his humanity with nothing really to lose but his disability?  Is this what he found in the Na'vi? Is their primal culture more authentic and humanitarian than the technological, consumer one that he has lived in all his life? Or is it that he finds something that he really wants - the girl? - that is not worth losing? It isn't really that clear to me.

It is common for people today to speak about what they are passionate about. It is an indicator of what they believe in and what they love.

However, until we understand what they fear losing do we truly know people. It is a far greater motivator than desire. When we know what is at stake then we know what truly matters.

On Fear

Donquixote-PicassoRoy Williams' Monday Morning Memo is always filled with insightful, inspiring stories. Roy, the Wizard of Ads, is a very wise soul. In this morning's letter he writes,

I am reminded of what Michel Eyquem De Montaigne said with tongue in cheek during the French Renaissance 450 years ago, “My life has been filled with terrible misfortune; most of which never happened.”

As expected, we received a firestorm of email 2 weeks ago as a result of the Monday Morning Memo of March 2 in which I said I had chosen not to be fearful about the future. It seems that a lot of people take pleasure in fretting and they want me to get on board.

But a frightened person frightens other people. And these newly frightened people will frighten still more people until finally no one is spending any money. Fear is the fuel of recession. I understand perfectly what’s happening in the world. I simply choose not to be afraid.

I also choose not to be afraid.

Fear is a recognition of insecurity. There are ways to approach this notion of fear.

Fear can come over me because external circumstances dictate that I should be afraid. Alone in a dark parking lot and a rough part of town is a good time to feel fear. This is the kind of fear that Gavin De Becker considers a gift.

External circumstances can spark fear, not from insecurity, but from inadequate understanding or lack of perspective. This is one of those times. No one can see the whole picture. We can't see the big picture because the complex interaction of forces at work are never fully available to us.

If we are dependent on our own ability to see everything, to manage our external life with absolute security, then we will be afraid during times of disruptive change. However, this is a false security, and always has been.

The reason that I am not fearful is because I accept the chaos and complexity of change as normal, not abnormal. I accept it as the context which tests every ounce of my brain and the beat of my heart to look for a pathway to success.

In other words, I choose not to be fearful because it leads to worse complications. It does not make the hard external circumstances go away. Instead, I learn everyday how to adapt to constantly changing circumstances. As I do, my confidence grows because I learn from the experience.

The hardest challenge is to have had success or a good job, and suddenly, they are gone. You are left on your own, and the security of external circumstances that you became accustomed to having has faded away. Now, you are left to your own capacity to change and grow through the chaos of the moment. It has always been this way. The fact that millions of people are sharing this experience may not mean much right now, but it does suggest possibilities that others have not recognized.

These changing circumstances are also affecting our relationships. They are under threat, just like our businesses.  Old assumptions have to be placed on the table to see whether they are sustainable. New commitments made that build strength for adapting together to these chaotic times.

If you live your life, and run your business dependent upon your ability to manage external circumstances for security, then you will live your life under stress and fear. We get rid of fear by learning to be confident in our ability to adapt and change. This is an internal change, within us, that then becomes reflected in our outward actions.

The last thing to say about this is that I cannot do this alone. I cannot master the fear inside me by force of will. Two things must occur if the fear in me is vanquished.

First, I must admit it to other people. I must join with them in acknowledging our shared fear, and then find comfort and support for transforming it into the kind of confidence that we need to find the opportunities in the midst of chaos.

Second, I must turn my focus from my own fear to helping others get over their's. When we give ourselves away, we find a connection with people that makes sense of the chaos. We begin to see that much of our fear is produced by our lack of meaningful connection to other people.

Here's one example of what I mean. Here in Asheville, it has been a cold winter. Our church in late January, early February decided to open up a community room on Saturday afternoons for those who are on the street without a place to go. This action was simply a stop-gap measure to fill a specific need in the care for the homeless. I learned last night that a fellow came on Saturday to the room. Met some of our members, and returned on Sunday morning for our late morning worship service. He was so moved by the connection he found with the people on Saturday, and the service on Sunday, that at the conclusion of the service, he came and became a member of the church. I'm not sure a homeless person has ever joined our church, so this is a rather remarkable occurence.

When people connect in service and support to one another, they find their fear diminish, their hope returns, and their confidence for managing the chaos of life strengthened. This is what each of us can do, and it begins personally by choosing not to be afraid. 

Subscribe to Roy's memo here.

Photo credit: Google images

Quick Takes: Fear vs Confidence - the brain science view

Ellen Weber is a treasure. She is able to write about the science of the brain and how it relates to business and professional life in a way that is understandable and enlightening. I'm constantly fascinated by her perspective.

She has written an excellent post on fear and confidence. Here's part of it.

In reality, financial experts increasingly warn us that fear can drain an economy, and it makes sense if you consider the mental disaster fear creates. ... The opposite of fear is confidence, that fuels mind-bending strategies for change and reaches beyond fears that stunt renewal. How so?  ...

Fear causes cynics to react without much reflection. Why so?  Dangerous chemicals such as cortisol rev up in brains focused on negative or scary news. Driven by cortisol, it’s no surprise that knee-jerk responses tend to follow. That’s how brains work. It’s also true that people respond differently to fearful situations such as job loss, and that chemical and electrical activity differs in every brain. Where some run or point fingers over sinking economy,  others optimize opportunities for change. Through taming their amygdala in tough times, successful people win wonders in the most difficult financial situations. Have you seen it happen?

Confidence, the opposite of fear, triggers chemicals such serotonin for winning reactions that open the brain to solutions, in spite of difficulties.

So, it appears there "mind over matter" is a good prescription for handling these fearful times. Train your mind to look for opportunities. Get out, take a walk, get away from the bad news.  In other words, you don't have to live in fear. Confidence can be developed.

Real Life Leadership: Maintaining a business in tough times requires creative thinking

Today's Real Life Leadership column - Maintaining a business in tough times requires creative thinking - is online.

Several years ago, I was privileged to participate in a day-long training session for law enforcement officers by Dave Grossman, one of the principals in the Warrior Science Group, as he spoke about the psychological and physiological effects of combat. Dave is the author/co-author of three books well worth reading -  Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill: A Call to Action Against TV, Movie and Video Game Violence, On Killing: the psychological cost of learning to kill in war and society, and his most recent, On Combat: the psychology and physiology of deadly conflict in war and in peace.

Dave spoke about how physical fear raises heart rate. As the heart rate rises, the amount of blood that gets to the brain drops. There is a loss of perspective, peripheral vision and judgment.  As a result, in a gun-fight, law enforcement officers and combat soldiers need to control their heart rate in order to maintain good blood flow to the brain. Without good blood flow, brain functioning diminishes and the officer is in much greater danger of making mistakes or worse getting shot and killed. Dave teaches a breathing technique that allows for greater control of heart rate and one's emotions in a time of violent confrontation. Dave spends around three hundred days a year on the road conducting his training programs. There is no way to know how many lives he has saved by helping law enforcement and military personnel manage the physiological dimension of combat.

I want you to know about Dave Grossman because there is an analogy to how business and professional people can deal with economic hardships.

As I write in the column, there are many people who are afraid of losing their businesses or jobs because of the economic climate we are in. That fear is understandable, and motivates us to take action. Fear is not always a bad thing. It is how we handle it that makes the difference. To know more read Gavin de Becker's important book, The Gift of Fear.

The relevance to business people is that in order to deal with the fear of the unknown, of potential loss and the sense of being out of control, we need to keep a cool head and become more creative. This is what George Fleming wants us to understand in the comments I quote in the column.  Fear in this sense is often about the experience of losing control. George wrote me,

There is much that you can’t control – the market, the competition, whether a client ultimately buys, etc. But you can control how you respond to these events and conditions. Look at great leaders throughout history: most became great leaders because they responded as leaders during the toughest of times while others were throwing in the towel. Are you focused on what is going well – or what is not? Are you focused on what’s possible – or on why it won’t work? On the clients you have – or the ones you’ve lost?

Creativity requires the fullness of our minds and hearts to be engaged. I know when I'm tired, my brain doesn't work, and I feel less passion for what I'm doing at the moment. The same is true as we deal with economic crisis. We need to take care of ourselves, maintain our physical health so that when the most difficult decisions are to be made we can marshal our full resources of emotion and thought to the task.

On January 20, in Asheville, George Fleming, along with others including yours truly, will be presenting workshops especially designed to help people deal with the challenging times that we are in. It is an afternoon and evening with a boxed dinner that you'll not soon forget, and only for $39.  You can find out more and register for Lessons In Leadership at

You can download a printable version of the column here.