What is failure and how can we make the most of it?

August 18, 2021 - 22 min read

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What is failure?

Recovering from failure by reframing it

How else might we define failure?

Success versus failure

Stages of failure

Don't fear failure

Learning from failure

What is failure? How do we go about learning from failure?

What is failure? We all experience it. But only some people know how to learn from it to be more successful in the future. This article explores the meaning of failure, the relationship between success and failure, and why one shouldn’t fear failing.

It's natural to try to avoid things that could end in failure. Failure can be embarrassing and painful to experience. But what is failure exactly?

Failure is defined as a lack of success or the inability to meet an expectation.

The problem is that we can read too much into failure. Too often, we tie it to our sense of self-worth, self-esteem, and self-acceptance. The expectation we fail to meet is often our own, or one that we've created in our own head.

Most of us don't set out looking to fail at anything. And we especially don’t want to be labeled as a failure. But maybe that is a mistake.

Failure can be useful. We can learn from it, gain new insights, and do better next time. The right kind of failures give us new information and teach us something that gets us closer to our goals.

Some live by the motto: If you aren't failing you aren't taking big enough risks. Said another way, if everything you try turns out exactly as planned and feels very comfortable, you probably aren't stretching yourself. And if you aren't stretching, you aren't growing.

Let’s consider ideas for reframing failure in our minds and our organizations and strategies for moving through failure with resilience.

What is failure?

A fairly common understanding of failure is setting a goal but not achieving it.

We tend to believe that knowing whether or not you achieved a goal is fairly simple and straightforward. It’s often based on data. But in truth, failure is often in the eye of the beholder.

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Imagine yourself in each of these three scenarios and whether you'd consider yourself to have failed:

  1. An experienced marathon runner sets a goal to run her next marathon in under four-and-a-half hours. This goal is a full 15 minutes shorter than her prior best time. She completes the marathon in 4 hours and 36 minutes. Besting her prior record by nine minutes.
  2. A senior director seeks a promotion to VP and competes against other internal and external candidates. She receives positive feedback. But she gets told that the leadership team felt that hiring an external person would demonstrate their commitment to change.
  3. A top young professional at an organization gets asked to prepare a slide deck for a high-profile meeting. He submits what he considers to be an excellent presentation to his boss. The boss praises the work but substantially changes the slides before the big meeting.

Notice that the differentiator in all three of these failure analysis examples is an ideal we've set in our minds.

Measuring goal achievement can be a subjective and political activity. And in each of these examples above, you can sense that the individuals tried hard and performed well in their efforts.

Perhaps that common definition of being in failure mode as "not achieving a goal" isn't so accurate and straightforward, after all.

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Recovering from failure by reframing it

What is failure? In a "winning-is-everything" society, how do we handle and define failure?

This is the tagline for a documentary series called Losers. It profiles high-performing athletes or teams that have a major failure.

Beyond the individual stories, there’s a more fascinating aspect of Losers. It’s how every episode highlights athletes who have turned the agony of defeat into human triumph.

One episode profiles figure skater Surya Bonaly. She was a nine-time French National Champion and won the European Championship five times. Still, she failed to medal in all three of her Olympic appearances. Finishing fifth in 1992, fourth in 1994, and tenth in 1998.

Now retired as a professional athlete, Surya Bonaly works as a figure skating coach and a motivational speaker. Especially for young athletes of color.

Like the professional athletes highlighted in the documentary, you may find yourself afraid to fail.

How else might we define failure?

Reframing is a technique used in coaching to see a situation in a new light.

Photographers move the lens around to get different angles on the same shot. We can similarly change our perspective on situations to see them differently.

We can reframe failure using these synonyms:

  • Novice. When you're new at something, success is less likely. Just as you can't set an expectation for a child to tie their shoes perfectly the first time. Or even the tenth time. You can't hold yourself to the standard of the expert when you're a novice. When you try something new, take a beginner's mindset. Remind yourself that you are a novice and give yourself many chances to improve.
  • Learning opportunity. Fear of failure is one of the strongest inhibitors of learning. One example is outlined in the classic Harvard Business Review article Teaching Smart People How to Learn. 

    Chris Argyris points out that many highly successful people fear failure. They fear it specifically because they have very little professional experience with it. As a result, they tend to respond defensively to failure. And they act to avoid it or avoid acknowledging it. 

    In the process, they miss out on the opportunity to learn and grow from trying something and getting a different result than what was expected or hoped for. When something happens that is different than what we expected, we stand to learn a lot about the situation and our assumptions. We also stand to learn about ourselves and how we handle setbacks and the unexpected.
    If you find yourself feeling defensive about a failure, reframe the situation by asking yourself what you can learn.

  • Perfectionism. If you have a strong perfectionistic streak, you may label things as failures that are not.

    For example, you may make a mistake during a presentation at a high-level meeting with top organizational leaders. Despite excellent feedback from all in attendance, you fixate on the one moment that didn't go exactly as planned.

    When you are beating yourself up for a past failure, ask yourself, "Have I actually failed?"
  • Systemic bias. Such biases are practices or beliefs embedded within a system that disadvantage different groups. In the modern workplace, systemic bias persists against people of color. They also persist against women, people with disabilities, and the LGBTQ+ community. For many of them, it can be the root cause of their perceived failure.

    Surya Bonaly was one of the few Black skaters in the 1990s. She got judged more harshly for not embodying the "white princess" ideal in women's figure skating. Judges labeled her as "exotic" and said she was "athletic but not artistic."

    The extent to which systemic bias affected her Olympics failures can never be fully known. Have you reflected on the systemic bias within your system that may be a factor in perceived failure?
  • Ambiguity. Our worlds are increasingly ambiguous and unpredictable. Who could have anticipated a global pandemic would break roots in 2019? And upend the world of work almost overnight?

    Avoiding failure is nearly impossible in some environments. Particularly those that are highly volatile, uncertain, complex, or ambiguous (VUCA). So cut yourself — and your colleagues — some slack if a deadline is missed or you've found some errors in a project. 

    There may be other factors causing distraction and
    stress. When ambiguity is decreasing the likelihood of goal achievement, adjust goal targets or pivot the business. 

    Try to root out errors made out of sloppiness or poor planning, but also recognize how often changing circumstances can upend the best-laid plans. Focus on what your team can learn about operating better under the reality of stress, distraction, and ambiguity rather than bemoaning that the world changed around your perfect plan.
  • Trial and error. A core principle of design thinking is the idea of failing fast and learning from failure. This mindset embraces failure as a natural part of the creative process. Trial and error provide the opportunity to continuously make things better.

    As Thomas Edison famously said about inventing the light bulb, "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work." When you see your failures as data points, you create a new opportunity for improvement.
  • Renewed motivation. Sometimes, a small failure becomes the setback that sparks a renewed commitment to a goal or project. You may have subconsciously put the goal on autopilot or become distracted by other priorities.

    The failure can
    provide a stimulus that adds energy and motivation where it might have lagged.
  • Simply unfinished. This phrase is borrowed from poet Amanda Gorman. The basic idea? Something that looks failed or broken may only be a misrepresentation of an unfinished process.

    Step back and look at the longer-term trajectory before declaring something failed.

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Success versus failure

If the definition of failure is not achieving a goal, then does meeting a goal equal success? To some extent, yes. But that definition feels too confining.

Success is psychologically bigger than goal achievement itself. And importantly, it is possible to feel like a successful person even in the face of failure.

In a speech to students at Figure Skating Harlem, Surya Bonaly said, "You don't have to wait for a medal to make your life different. If you give 100%, you did the best. Feel good about it. Feel positive and move on."

This quote exemplifies an important differentiator between process goals and outcome goals.

An outcome goal discussed earlier was to run a marathon in under four-and-a-half hours. In order to achieve that outcome, the runner would have been engaged in process goals along the way in order to make the outcome more likely.

She would have run five or more days a week. Joined a marathon training group. Managed her dietary intake. Purchased the necessary equipment. And devoted countless hours to her training.

But in our society, we do not tend to acknowledge and appreciate those process achievements. Instead, we make the feeling of success contingent upon the outcome.

Let's be real — it is important to feel successful. When do you allow yourself to feel successful? If you make success contingent only on achieving outcome goals, you might start to find yourself never feeling good enough.

Instead, let's consider an alternative definition of success. Where we allow ourselves to feel successful for all the efforts we put forth. Rather than the outcomes.

Success is knowing what you want out of life. And feeling proud of yourself for investing in what is meaningful to you. Success and failure can be highly subjective.
A more open mindset may help you reframe your failure to success.

Stages of failure

Over time, you may shift your focus to feeling successful from process outcomes. The structure put forth by Atomic Habits author James Clear might be helpful to you in that case. He's identified three stages of failure:

  1. Failure of vision is when you are not clear about what you want or your personal "why." When you don't know what you want out of life. Or if you are not feeling purpose and meaning in your life. Then you might be having a failure of vision.

    This is where looking inward and focusing on your own well-being can make a difference.
  2. Failure of tactics is when you know what you want but don't have a clear or effective plan for achieving it.

    For instance, maybe you've failed to complete a project because you only have a general sketch and not a master plan.

    Even those who are effective at strategic planning in the workplace sometimes struggle. Especially with translating those skills into tactics for personal or
    leadership development. This is where habit tracking and development can be very effective.
  3. Failure of strategy is when you have a plan and follow it, but still do not achieve your goal. An endless number of factors could be affecting your success. They may be related or unrelated to your plan.

    Failure of strategy is an ideal moment to employ your design thinking skills and get working on the next iteration.

Understanding why you feel failure can help you overcome challenges to your process outcomes. Perhaps you're "simply unfinished." Then, thinking through this will result in "renewed motivation" to achieve your process outcomes.

Keep in mind that none of us can avoid failure all the time. That isn't the intent.

We live in a world where our success as individuals and teams depends on us learning more and faster to perform better. If we aren't failing, we probably aren't taking enough risks.

Too often, we kind of intellectually embrace experimentation and risk-taking. But we want to do it efficiently and cleanly without failing. That isn't the intent.

The intent is to be resilient in the face of failure. A resilient person will use these strengths in the service of goal attainment:

  • Self-compassion. Show kindness toward yourself and others involved in the failure. Focus on empathy and keeping the failure in perspective. There’s a difference between admitting failure and beating yourself up over it.
  • Cognitive agility. Be willing to quickly learn from failures and pivot to new opportunities.
  • Growth mindset. Take a learner's approach with a non-judgmental stance. By default, we respond defensively or cast blame. Instead, reflect deeply and try to understand how to be different going forward.
  • Problem-solving. Stay curious and creative. Collect data to inform decisions and next steps.
  • Purpose and meaning. Don’t have regrets. Reconnect with the larger meaning behind the goal and use that to drive new approaches.
  • Recognition. Appreciate the efforts that you and others have dedicated thus far. Feel successful by weighing the process as much as or more than the outcome.

Don't fear failure

In her 1998 final Olympics appearance, Surya Bonaly skated through an Achilles tendon injury.

Knowing it would be her last performance as an amateur athlete, she perfectly executed her signature backflip. All the while knowing it was an illegal move.

For her, at that moment,
she didn’t see herself as a victim. Pushing the boundaries of the sport and expressing herself were more important than scores from the judges.

The audience gave her a standing ovation. The judges gave her low scores.

Learning from failure

Failure is a great teacher. It can be a valuable lesson for us in the long run. We should be able to examine it and take important lessons away from it.

Performing a failure analysis and looking at the root causes of our failure is a key way of learning from failure. 

This is particularly true if you suffer a complex failure where the reason for failure may not be immediately clear.

It’s nice to know what we are doing right in our jobs or business. But failure feedback gives us something equally important: a learning process or teachable moment about what we are doing wrong as well.

Often, small failures early on in a project can almost be like an experiment. These failures can create innovation that leads to future success.

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Performing a failure analysis

There are several different frameworks that you can use for failure analysis. One of the most popular is FMEA (failure mode and effects analysis).

Performing a failure analysis allows you to calculate a risk priority number (RPN) for a process.

An RPN is based on the severity, occurrence rate, and detection rate of different challenges that may arise in your business processes.

To perform a process failure analysis, there are 10 steps that you need to follow:

1. Review the process

2. Brainstorm potential failure modes (root causes)

3. List potential effects of each failure

4. Assign severity rankings

5. Assign occurrence rankings

6. Assign detection rankings

7. Calculate the RPN (risk priority number)

8. Develop an action plan

9. Take action

10. Calculate the resulting RPN (risk priority number)

If you want to take a more structured approach to learning from your model, these steps will guide you through the process.

For a full explanation of how to calculate your risk priority number and perform failure analysis, see this resource.

What is failure? How do we go about learning from failure?

Failure is not inherently bad.

On
 the contrary, most failures provide amazing opportunities to gain new insights about yourself or your work. And some failures even create the opportunity to be triumphant.

We are working and living in increasingly ambiguous and fast-changing systems. We will all have to get more comfortable with making mistakes and learning to fail better. Learning to fail is a skill we can all practice.

If you or your team is struggling with failure, consider trying BetterUp Care, a comprehensive mental health solution. It’s redefining employee engagement, productivity, and business growth.

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Published August 18, 2021

Paula Thompson, Ed.D

BetterUp Fellow Coach

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