Is Failure The End?

I went to a class sponsored by our local chamber of commerce this week.  The presenter was terrible and it was two hours of wasted content.  The benefit was that it got me thinking about when we fail, what it means, and what it should mean.

A mentor of mine, Doug Silsbee, once shared the observation that “We have to shift from a success/failure belief system.”  As a startup, I have that posted on a piece of paper on my desk to give me some perspective on viewing good and bad days.  I am not to the point where I want to ban the word because it has power.  It has the power to be positive if we do things with it.  Here are three ways failure can be a building block: 

  1. If it means the beginning of something – In Parker Palmer’s classic book  Let Your Life Speak he shares some wisdom from a Quaker elder.  She said “A lot of way(doors) has closed behind me, and that’s had the same guiding effect.”  Failure should be a guide on a journey, not an end.  The ability to see it and process it this way does take some strength and maturity, but it will make a huge difference on your journey.
  2. It is only part of what defines us – When I talk to groups around career choices and job searches one of the main themes I use is ‘Your Story’, and that any resume, LinkedIn profile, or references should tell our story.  Part of our story are failures in jobs, projects, and degrees.  When I hire I want to hear them and hear how the person has processed them.  It is that part of our story that helps us either not repeat past mistakes or handle the same situation differently to produce a different outcome.
  3. We learn empathy –  Let’s face it, to walk off the stage after a poor presentation, get escorted out of our workplace, or fly home from a failed selling presentation it hurts.  But once we experience it we understand what it feels like and what kinds of darker choices enter our mind when the memory is fresh.  By dark, I mean the emotions or things you want to do to lash out at those you view as responsible.  I will stop here.  If you have been here you know what I mean, and being familiar with this place allows us to guide others past it and on to better places.

The final thought is that failure often needs a friend.  Someone to come along side you, help identify the event for what it was, and help put some positive energy into the event that will allow you to move along.  Gallup did a study that identified the positive outcomes of having 3 friends at work.  Buried in the reasons is the benefit of having someone familiar with you that can help process these moments.  It is not the only reason for building relationships at work, but it is a significant one. 

I hope the presenter makes our time together the beginning of something better.