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Reconfiguring success, and how failure isn't necessarily a bad thing in business

Humans are facing the fastest rate of change and some of the biggest challenges our species has ever encountered. Never before have transformative skillsets, agile thinking and resilience been needed so much. And, not just resilience to cope with the big events, but to better cope with everyday challenges and failures. Jennifer Young explores how we can become comfortable with change and discomfort, learn how to bounce through failure and learn how to transform ourselves, our businesses and our world.

While failure has long been looked at through a negative lens, I believe it's time to look at it from a different perspective – and to unlearn what we’ve learned from our culture about failure.

But first, where does fear of failure come from?

When we think about failure and resilience, we can learn a lot from our younger humans. Firstly, they have an innate drive to learn and grow. In learning to walk, there is unlimited support for their abilities. They try, they fall down, they get up and repeat. The lesson here: none of us would be able to walk, dance or play if we fell down six times and didn’t get up the seventh time.

In writing this article, I interviewed 20 people across various industries and businesses. Common themes came out through stories about incidences occurring at formative ages (normally eight to 14 years old) when they were ridiculed in front of other kids for making a mistake which they internalised as them being ‘bad’ at something. Brené Brown defines these instances as ‘creativity scars’ when these early failures become moments of shame for us.

Too many entrepreneurs think that if their first business idea is a failure, they aren’t cut out for it. The same goes for artists: if their early work doesn’t get praised, too many believe they don’t have the skill required. A little closer to home for many is if the first two or three relationships are bad, many believe they will never find love. Thankfully, life and evolution does not work this way. Life is about adapting, evolving, revising, and iterating. We are not expected to figure it all out on the first try.

Brown defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love, belonging, and connection”. From a neuroscientific perspective, we’re more likely to remember the bad or painful incidents than the good or rewarding situations. Our brains are not hardwired to make up happy, they’re hardwired to keep us safe. Neuroscience tells us that the pain and feelings of rejection that shame inflicts are as real as physical pain. Sorry Mum, neuroscience says you’re wrong: sticks and stones may break my bones, but names can also hurt me.

It’s during these moments when our brains are not fully developed that it helps to have someone experienced help to reframe the failure for us. Then we can internalise the experience as pain or guilt instead of shame. Guilt says, ‘I’ve done something bad’. Shame says ‘I am bad’ or ‘I am not enough’. This can help us see that the incident is us learning, and not a character flaw.

Is failure actually a good thing?

The simple answer is yes AND no. It all depends how you perceive and respond to failure. Failure is a mental construct, while others see the obstacle as the way (thanks, Ryan Holliday and Stoicism). Born out of our schooling and societal norms, failure is seen as a bad thing. The question is: are we perceiving failure as a bad thing, or as a learning experience? Until we question this for ourselves we will not be able to transcend the limitations of failure and see that we can overcome many perceived challenges through better thinking.

We can take a leaf out of scientists’ and entrepreneurs’ books here. Without failures, we wouldn’t have great innovations that change the world forever. When Bill Gates was demonstrating his first product, a device for reading and processing traffic data, he couldn’t even get the machine to work. Their company Traf-O-Data did fail, but it provided the foundation for the success of Microsoft’s first product years later. Even Albert Einstein himself said, “It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with the problems longer.”

For scientists, a negative result is not an indication that they are a bad scientist. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Proving a hypothesis wrong is often just as useful as proving it right because they learned something along the way. Scientists treat failure as another data point. How might it impact our quality of life if we treated failures as data points that can help lead us to the right answers?

Co-founder of Code Camp Peter Duncan teaches kids to code. He explained that many kids came in “with walls built up and were too scared to test… so we teach them that F.A.I.L. means First Attempt At Learning. At Code Camp we encourage kids to fail fast and often”. In essence, he and his team encourage kids to reframe failures as learning. For adults coaches, psychologists and managers are excellent for this external feedback. Reframing failure helps us become more resilient.

For scientists, a negative result is not an indication that they are a bad scientist. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Proving a hypothesis wrong is often just as useful as proving it right because they learned something along the way. Scientists treat failure as another data point. How might it impact our quality of life if we treated failures as data points that can help lead us to the right answers?

What defining features differentiate those that give up and those that are resilient?

A key theme among interviewees was that the resilient people they knew had high levels of self-awareness, managed high-stress situations well and they prioritised investing in their wellbeing. This ensured they were consistently able to show up and face upcoming challenges. Uncomfortable is Ok podcast host Chris Desmond has interviewed over 230 resilient founders, athletes and creatives. What did they have in common? For many, their normal response to failure was reframing it as learning, they had a sense of ‘why’ or purpose that kept them going and they were curious to see how things could be done differently and better. In essence, the resilient people innovated, iterated and were agile in their ways of thinking and working.

Thankfully, resilience is a learned ability. We can learn how to bounce from adversity, grow, connect and flow. Many authors argue that building our resilience is the best investment we can make in our development. The problem with our general understanding of resilience is that it’s something we build only in reaction to events. I propose it’s an asset that we should intentionally and proactively develop so that we can better cope with the day-to-day challenges life throws at us.

A surprisingly consistent feature in resilient humans was practising honesty with others. They reviewed situations honestly, reflected and learned how their actions or decisions impacted the final outcomes. Being honest about shortcomings, weaknesses or failures takes vulnerability and courage. It also takes courage to start again. To do this, we need strong practices and environments that are supportive of experimenting. Sally Duxfield, director at Makahika Outdoor Pursuit Centre, uses with her teams “strong debriefs; the focused and disciplined approach of ‘pulling out’ learnings so that mistakes or poor decisions are not repeated”. Having an honest and trustworthy network was also emphasised. Irene Wakefield, Prepair founder, swore by her “great support network who calls me out on my BS, encourages me through doubt and celebrates my wins”.

What can we practically do to become more resilient?

  1. Experience it. “What you resist, persists” – we must face the fear and learn from it. F.E.A.R. = False Expectations About Reality. Lean into the discomfort. Breathe through it. Observe that we survive it. Know that the discomfort is temporary. Observe what stories the mind tells us. Grow our self-awareness: what might we believe about our abilities? Consider working on one challenging thing to start with.
  2. Lessen self-expectations. Treat yourself with compassion like you would a child learning to walk. Everyone starts somewhere. Unchatter’s Alina Manko recommends for people: “separate our value as an individual from the thing that went wrong or the action we took”. There’s no expectation to get it right the first time. Or, treat the experience like a scientist – use it as a data point.
  3. Ask for help, keep yourself accountable and define to yourself whose opinions really matter. When we define ourselves by what everyone thinks, it’s hard to be brave. Brené Brown suggests  writing on a post-it note the names of the people whose opinions of you matter. They should be the people “who love you not despite your vulnerability and imperfections, but because of them”. Share with these trusted humans your goals and ask them (or a coach) to keep you accountable.
  4. Practice self-care. Consistent daily, weekly and monthly habits lead to mastery. Examples are practising mindfulness, prioritising sleep, nutrition, exercise and connecting with loved ones. Understand life is a constant balance between giving into the ease of distraction and overcoming the pain of discipline.
  5. Consider investing in your self-awareness and personal growth. Hire a coach or psychologist to understand your mind, thought patterns, blind spots and goals. Learning to practice mindfulness or doing a resilience training course are also recommended. The Resilience Institute’s resources are a great place to start.
  6. Say YES! When someone offers you the opportunity to try something out of your comfort zone, say yes, whether it be something little like trying a new food, to trying a new hobby, you never know where it might lead. This is how I found a great love in dancing salsa and bachata.

It’s time to unlearn what we’ve learned from our culture about failure by applying more diverse perspectives to our lives and challenges. We can take learnings from children, scientists and entrepreneurs to reframe our own perceived failures and challenges, become more resilient and be the change our world needs. Remember John Shedd’s wise words: “A ship in harbour is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.” If you need a final bit of motivation to going outside of your comfort zone, know that it’s only when we step away from what we know and what is comfortable that we have the chance to learn and to achieve our goals and dreams.

Jennifer Young is the founder of Intentional Generations (previously 'Jen Y Insights'). Jen is a lawyer-turned-mindfulness-educator, NeuroLeadership Institute trained coach, facilitator, accredited mental health first aider, youth leadership development advisor and writer. People work with her to make change and impact without burning out and elevate them to their definitions of deeply fulfilling and deeply impactful lives. Get in touch at www.jenyinsights.com.

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