Learning to Fail

May 3, 2012

So, how many times have you screwed up? How many times have you misunderstood, misinterpreted, or just misjudged? How many times have you been wrong? How many times have you failed?

As they say in motorcycle racing, crashing sucks! And if you’ve seen the way they go down, you’d have to agree that wrecking while wrenching a 300 pound machine just inches from the ground at 120 miles per hour is pretty much the apogee of failure. Nothing like racing forward at full speed with your desired end result in mind, possibly even in sight, and having it all go to hell with one miscalculation. Most times it’s easier to handle, though more disappointing, when it’s your screw up. If it’s someone around you or even someone on your team, it can send you into freakout mode because their mistake caused you to fail.

Failure sucks for a bunch of reasons. Mostly it sucks because, well, you failed! You didn’t accomplish what you wanted. But it also sucks because there’s usually negative consequences associated with failure. The bridge falls, the car won’t start, dinner tastes like a wet sock, you lose money, your CUSTOMER loses money, your girlfriend splits with half your stuff…the list goes on. If it’s a work-related failure there’s usually a butt-chewing that follows. Might even be a documented butt-chewing. Might even be a FINAL documented butt-chewing. Might be a smile and a wave as you pack your box.

But failure teaches us so much. For starters, it teaches us what NOT to do. Ever stuck a penny in an electrical outlet? Ever did it again? I didn’t think so. I remember getting my first ten-speed bike (yea, I’m that old…). Grabbed a handful of front brake and went tumbling over the front wheel. Did it right in front of a pack of kids from school who thought it was so funny as I tumbled through the air and across the asphalt. My pride was bruised, my back and shoulder were scraped, but my brain was smarter. Note to self, don’t try to stop quickly using just the front brake…especially with people around!

Failure also teaches us how to fix stuff. As a manager, I don’t want people who can just come in and do stuff. I want people who can come in and do stuff BETTER. I want people who can look at what we’re doing and say, I have an idea on how to improve that. And then I want them to shut the hell up and do it! I want people who can take responsibility for something and make it awesome. I want people, who can fix things. And how do you learn to fix things? Well, most times you learn by having broken it at some point. My Dad told me this awesome story about when he was a teenager and learning to work on cars. He pulled the distributor out of my grandfather’s 1958 Chevy. His uncle looked at him and said, that’s nice. Put it back. So Dad did. And the car wouldn’t start! Seems you have to have the distributor lined up just right, you can’t just shove it back in. Took my Dad the rest of the day and most of the night to figure it out so my grandfather could go to work the next day. I can identify. As a new HR person I was given the task of planning an employee picnic. It was an unmitigated disaster. After that I knew everything I should do to make it better. Still can’t stand employee picnics, though…

But more importantly it teaches us that we are not infallible. In an era of participant ribbons and no scoreboards and over-complimentary parenting sometimes we have to learn that we aren’t as freaking wonderful as we think we are. Sometimes we do dumb stuff and when we do there’s a negative consequence. The truly brilliant man is not the one who can tell you everything he knows, it’s the one who realizes there’s so much more to learn! Sometimes it’s a skill we need to learn. Sometimes it’s the application of the skill that we need to learn. Sometimes we just need to stop believing our own bullshit. Most times we fail because we don’t know something about ourselves.

So what’s the difference between messing up and learning from one’s mistakes? Well, first is a level of awareness. You have to be able to recognize situations where your actions, or the actions of those around you, have lead to failure and be able to quickly dispense with the excuses and get to the mechanics. Many times getting past the excuse phase is hard because we want to focus on WHO failed rather than WHY we failed. And in most of these cases, everyone played a role in the failure. Healthy self-awareness is being able to admit our own role in the failure then quickly get past that and on to the repair.

So, next is the competence to fix whatever it is that contributed to the failure. This shouldn’t be mistaken for fixing it yourself. Going back to self-awareness it’s important that you know your limits and seek out expert advice. If I’m sick, I go to a doctor. I know people who like to self-medicate. They take herbs and roots and berries and all that stuff when what they need to do is go see a doctor. Call me when WebMD has taught you out how to carve out that brain tumor and I’ll say it’s a good idea. Until then, I know what I know and I know what I don’t know. I’m gonna get help with the stuff I don’t know.

Finally is the support structure that not only allows, but encourages periodic failure. I remember my son tooling off down the street on the little trail bike I bought him. I almost threw up….. I knew he was going to run into a car, or a tree, or a dog, or just fall and break some random body part (going back to the top, that’s why crashing sucks!). But, he wasn’t going to learn to ride unless I let him ride. He still rides today. Does pretty good. But I’ve also worked in HR long enough to know that everyone is just one screw up away from getting canned. With that in mind we sometimes work harder to cover our ass or set others up to take the fall for our mistake (for reference, see the lyrics to, “You’re Gonna Go Far, Kid”).

On that note, ever been stabbed in the back? It sucks worse than crashing, but it’s a special kind of failure. It’s a failure in trust and judgment. You put your trust in someone else, and they violate that trust for their own self-interest. I wrote about inconvenient truths a few blogs ago. Here’s another one. Some people are just assholes. Learn to deal with it.

To new grads I say, get out of your seat and go fail. To their future bosses I say, don’t be a jerk. Let them fail then man up and support them when they do. Failure doesn’t make either you weaker, it makes both of you stronger!

Shoot me a note at UCF_OCC@yahoo.com if you think I’ve failed in my reasoning. Send me a note if you think I’ve succeeded. Whatever the reason, get out there and talk to folks. Peace!