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The success of failure

I meet with clients all the time, and while their goals may differ, the one constant I find is that they all have some level of fear of something that stands in the way of their progress toward success. And ultimately it is a fear of failure or falling short.

No one likes to lose, or feel like they didn’t reach their goals, but to fear failing at something to the point where you are paralyzed to even try ensures failure. It’s funny when you think about it, but as John Maxwell, a mentor for me and thousands of others, says, “The only guarantee for failure is to stop trying.” And if you haven’t even started to try, you’re chaining yourself to failure.

Let’s unpack this a bit, and see how you can positively approach the concept of failing and stop thinking of failure as a person (you).

Redefine what failing says about you

From the time we were very small, we were praised for things we did well, and often scolded or even shamed for things we didn’t do well. Teachers graded you, and an F was cause for concern, and probably a stern lecture from your parents. Over time, then, it’s no surprise that people feel bad when they fail, and take it on as a character flaw rather than an event that fell short of expectations.

Instead, it’s time to take failure and assign a more positive definition to it. From some very smart, successful people, failure is:

• A sign that you’ve tried something new (Albert Einstein)

• A part of inventing (Jeff Bezos, Amazon)

• An opportunity to begin again, more intelligently (Henry Ford)

• An indication of innovation (Elon Musk)

Imagine then how much more willing you would be to try, to risk, and to stretch.

Realize failure is a part of success

Again, we’ve been taught over the years, incorrectly, that failure sits opposite of success, but the most successful entrepreneurs see it as an entirely different relationship. In a letter to Amazon shareholders, Bezos wrote, “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.”

So failing becomes a tool to get closer to success, and not a step back from it, if you look at it this way. It then becomes less fearsome, doesn’t it?

Strategize for the inevitability of failing

“Failure is not an option” is a saying of bravado, but it’s also unrealistic. It’s not only going to be an option, if you’re working hard enough, it’s assured. We know we’re imperfect, so when we’re met with a setback, it’s time to assess:

• What didn’t work?

• Why didn’t it work?

• How can it be approached differently?

• What will success be in this new process?

Failure is a teacher and an opportunity to think creatively and with innovation. Who can you enlist to help you evaluate what went wrong, with an objective view and educated advice? If you don’t take the opportunity to learn, that in itself is failure.

No doubt, there’s a lot of humility required, and growth and change are never easy. However, if you remain focused on your goal, all of that baggage should be put aside. In fact, someone you trust and with a skilled eye on your situation may suggest you reevaluate the goal itself. I’ve talked about setting SMART goals, and it’s possible that in failing, it’s the goal that is setting you up for failure.

So whether you are already underway or are just getting started in the process first ask if the goal that you are basing success or failure on is

• Specific

• Measurable

• Attainable

• Relevant

• Timely

If not, fix it, quite simply. Retool what you are aiming for, and while there still may be failure along the way, you can focus on your strategy and tactics instead.

It’s time to get unstuck, then. Time to free yourself from the prison of fear you have created, and join the rest of the failures out there like Thomas Edison, Walt Disney, Michael Jordan and a host of others. There is success in failure, if only you can begin.