How do we fail successfully?
Not that failure is a worthy goal or anything like that. But there are times when we are glad that some endeavour failed. For example, there may be the job one is shortlisted for only to realise during the process of being interviewed and meeting the potential line manager that you would prefer to quaff down a pint of warm spit rather than work there! I recently went through a day long interview process for a job with three other candidates. In the end when the post was offered to one of the others, the two of us who ‘failed’ high fived each other on our lucky escape. The successful candidate was hardly enthusiastic about the offer and went home ‘to think about it.’ They are probably re-advertising for the position as I write. I guess that was one kind of ‘successful failure’.
But I have something else in mind.
Once Woody Allen commented on the secret of his success: ‘I just keep showing up’ No doubt many of those occasions on which he showed up would have proved futile on the surface and failed to produce any immediate results. Allen’s comment suggests he was a man who knew how to fail well. That is, he used each opportunity that came his way and continued to ‘show up’ rather than give up. I believe J.K. Rowling’s first book in the Harry Potter series ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (as it is called in the UK) was rejected by nine publishers before the manuscript was accepted. Dr Seuss (a favourite author of children’s books like ‘The Cat in the Hat’, etc.) has his first manuscript ‘And to think I saw it on Mulberry Street’ rejected by 27 publishers before it was picked up by Vanguard Press. The rest is history, as they say, for both the above authors. I guess they just kept showing up.
Successful failing is about not giving up. But perhaps it is also about what most deeply motivates us. Albert Einstein’s words are noteworthy: ‘I try not to become a man of success but rather a man of value.’ The old cliché about the difference between being and doing holds here. ‘What kind of human being do I want to be?’
Sometimes we are knocked for six by repeated attempts to achieve something – like finding the right job, getting published, or accomplishing some long standing ambition. None of us are strangers to disappointment and even depression at our repeated frustrated attempts at one thing or another, and these will vary in their degree of personal importance. (At the moment I am aware of the 60+ applications I have submitted for work over the past several months only to be shortlisted for 6 or 7 and not ‘successful’ at any so far. But my day will come!) There are times when the only thing we can do is to keep on keeping on.
Failure is a crucial junction on the road to success. Investment manager Diane Garnick, who taught a course on failure at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, put it succinctly. “We learn more from our failures than we could ever learn from our successes.” Hence John Seely Brown, head of Palo Alter Research Centre (PARC) can comment that “trafficking in unlimited failure” is key to enabling PARC’s employees to invent once-unimaginable technologies.
So keep showing up. Keep on keeping on. Above all aim to be people of value rather than people of success. Your day will come.