Don’t Fear Failure

It is normal way to map the unknown

and can be your greatest tutor


By Vic SussMan

SO HERE YOU ARE, mired in the mud of a stalled career, wondering why success keeps dancing just beyond your fingertips. A chorus of business gurus has the answer. Success eludes you—ready for this?—because you haven’t failed enough.

Many career experts tout failure as the castor oil of success. The idea isn’t to fling yourself into certain disaster in order to be mystically rewarded with triumph. Rather, it’s a simple recognition that people who willingly risk failure and learn from loss have the best chance of succeeding at whatever they try.

If you haven’t crashed, you may be in snooze mode, coasting and taking too few risks to be challenged. Oh, you’ve had minor reverses in school or love, but you haven’t failed meaningfully. Never fear, says Amitai Etzioni, professor of socio-economics at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.: “Everyone gets a chance. No one lives a failure-proof life forever.”

Failure is easy to recognize. “It usually involves loss of money, self-esteem or status,” says Carole Hyatt, co-author of When Smart People Fail. At the very least, it is simply not getting what you want.

Not that rational people should wish for calamity, says Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People. But a stiff dose of misfortune is often a painfully effective tutor. It “teaches you something about your strength and acquaints you with your limitations,” notes Kushner. “That’s an important part of maturity.”

People who profit from loss are the kind of foot soldiers business leaders seek. “Continuous success builds arrogance and complacency,” say multibillionaire industrialist H. Ross Perot. “I want people who love the battlefield, people willing to go to the wall.” That includes making honest mistakes. Unsuccessful people, he adds, instinctively avoid risks even when a smart gamble might pay off. “You learn a great deal more from what doesn’t work than from what does.” Failure, he says, is merely the cost of seeking new challenges.

If the thought of fouling up paralyzes you, here are several helpful suggestions:

  1. Stop using the “F” word. High achievers, says Charles Garfield, author of Peak Performers: The New Heroes of American Business, rarely refer to “failure”, a loaded word suggesting a personal dead end. They prefer “glitch,” “bollix” or “course correction.”
    Some of 34 years ago, Victor Kiam, the Remington-shaver entrepreneur, blew a chance to obtain the rights to an unknown product when colleagues criticized it. The product was Velcro. Ouch! “I could get upset about that,” says Kiam, author of Live to Win, “but I look at it as just another blip on the road. Besides, if I hadn’t learned from that lapse of judgment—by not having confidence in myself—I never would have bought Remington.”
  2. Don’t take it personally. “Failure is an attitude as well as an outcome,” warns Harvey Mackay, author of Swim With the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive. When things go sour, do you instinctively label yourself a loser? “The language you use to describe yourself can become a powerful reality,” adds Carole Hyatt. Repeatedly calling yourself an unemployed salesperson not only labels you as out of work—synonymous with failure in our society—it limits your potential. Better to consider yourself someone “with options,” suggests Hyatt. Those options include taking classes to develop new skills or bravely striking out on another career.
  3. Be prepared. Help insulate yourself by mapping a catastrophe plan. Ask yourself: What is the worst that can happen? Imagining loss of job or spouse can force you to clearly consider practical alternatives. Do you have enough insurance and cash reserves to carry you through a difficult period? Do you have talents that could bring in an income if your employer dismissed you? Keep in mind that the Chinese ideogram for “crisis” consists of the characters for both “danger” and “opportunity.”
    Broadening your support system is also crucial. “The answer to failure,” says Hyatt, “is to have a balanced life centered on family, friends, and hobbies.” No single venture or job should support your entire emotional life. Says organizational psychologist Mortimer R Feinberg: “If you’re too reliant on one environment, you will become a fossil. I know an unemployed executive is in real trouble when I ask about his plans for a new job and he says he has none.”
  4. Learn to fail intelligently. Jack Matson, a University of Houston professor, developed a course his students dubbed “Failure 101.” Matson had his class build mock-ups of products no one would buy. “They designed hamster hot tubs and kites to fly in hurricanes,” says Matson.
    The ideas were ridiculous, but once Matson’s students equated failure with innovation instead of defeat, they felt free to try anything. Since most students had at leas five minutes before finding their business niche, they learned not to take failure as the last word, says Matson. “They learned to reload and get ready to shoot again.”
    Students also discovered the two ways of fail. Trying out things sequentially is what Matson calls “slow, stupid failure.” The process is so prolonged that you get worn out and give up. “Intelligent, fast failure” means launching several ideas at once and readying more for the next salvo. “Failure is a normal natural way of mapping the unknown,” says Matson, “so compress your trial into as small a time period as possible.”
  5. Never say die. Glen Early’s construction company failed in 1975. Then only 25, Early borrowed on his home rather than declared bankruptcy. He continued to work in construction, trying to master the intricacies of management. In 1982, he “got nervy enough” to borrow more to start his own business again, having built a solid reputation with banks for getting through difficult times.
    Early expanded his new construction business cautiously. He took college courses in business administration. By 1988, Early’s company made Inc. magazine’s list of America’s 500 fastest-growing privately owned companies.
    Early is not complacent. Memories of hard times haunt him. “I can’t afford to get arrogant about success,” he says. “So I’m always trying to improve my business.” With that attitude, tempered by failure, he’s likely to be on top for years to come. You can be too.

CONDENSED FROM U.S. NEWS & WORLD REPORT (JANUARY 15, ’90), ©1990 BY U.S. NEWS & WORLD REPORT, INC., WASHINGTON, D.C.

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