Many people are afraid of failure. But should they be? In this month’s 5-on-5, the Praxis team takes on a few questions about failing.
What is the biggest failure you’ve experienced in your career so far?
Drake Powell, Praxis Customer Service Associate
When I worked for Google Nest doing technical support over the phone for their thermostats, I dealt with wires on almost every call. It wasn’t too complicated, but there were a few mistakes you could make that could really screw things up. I ended up twisting the wires in the wrong configuration and frying somebody’s system. I had to escalate, made sure to answer any questions and present what I had done, the mistake I made, and what needs to be done now to the Tier 2 agent.
Johnny Roccia, Praxis Director of Business Development
I was once the district manager for a sales company, and the parent company suddenly closed. Suddenly I had 20 employees, office space, a client list – but no corporate support. I attempted to split off and structure my district as an independent company, and failed completely. Within three months we’d shut our doors and I had to let everyone that hadn’t already quit go.
Sara Morrison, Praxis Director of Operations
I can remember my first review at my job very clearly. I was coming up on my one-year anniversary and was confident it would be a net positive experience. When it came to things I could improve on, I was surprised (you never want to be surprised in a review!) to hear that one of my biggest shortcomings was my lack of failure. What?
It turns out not having any major hiccups in my first year showed that I wasn’t taking risks or innovating as much as I could be and that I was more concerned with staying “in the box” to ensure success. It was an eye-opening experience!
Hannah Frankman, Praxis Community Manager
When I was working as a Praxis intern, I pitched Isaac Morehouse on being the editor of a book he was working on, titled Forward Tilt. He’d put out an open call for pitches, and I wrote him an ambitious one — a pitch so good I beat out the entire field of competition. I told him I’d have the whole book completed and published in four weeks, and mapped out a week-by-week plan for having it finished.
The problem was, I’d never edited a book before, and I grossly underestimated just how much time the project would take. It took me almost a week longer to have everything finished and published than I’d intended. Worse, I’d failed to catch and communicate my error early on, which did me no favors when I had to go and adjust the timeline later on. I had oversold and underdelivered, which is exactly what you’re not supposed to do.
Brian Nuckols, Praxis Marketing Associate
Great question! I had some early career success as a freelance web designer and this gave me the confidence to apply to for a front end web developer position that was above my skill set.
I wanted the job intently, so I did a lot of research, crafted a value proposition, and was confident in the interview.
After 60 days, it was abundantly clear that I wasn’t capable of what the company needed and wouldn’t be able to create value for them in the foreseeable future.
Even though the separation was framed as mutually beneficial and ended on great terms, I felt crushed until I started regaining career momentum.
What is the biggest lesson failure taught you?
Overall, failure has mainly taught me that failure is awesome. It may not be something to seek out, but when it happens, it’s definitely not something to be afraid of. Some of my best “it clicked” moments came from trying something and failing.
Not to try to shield people. In order to keep morale up, I shouldered everything myself and didn’t loop in some of my best employees, even though they would have been not only understanding, but very capable of helping. Had I delegated more tasks, we might have been more successful. Instead I was so busy doing everything behind the scenes to set us up as a functioning company, my actual managerial duties lacked and things tanked anyway. It’s fine to ask for help.
That first review taught me that never having failed at something is a default failure in itself. It’s important to take “little bets” on your ideas, so you can fail small and fail fast before tweaking your approach and trying again.
I learned a whole string of lessons. The first was that, when you’re not used to failing and you don’t expect it, failure stings — a lot. The second was that the sting is normal — even okay. The biggest lesson, though, came a little later, and it was to keep the sting in perspective. When you aren’t used to failing, it’s easy to feel like your first major failure is the end of the world, and that it marrs you forever — but in the grand scheme of things, it really isn’t that big of a deal.
During the 60 day period when I was trying for the job I wanted so badly, I worked harder than I ever had before and received the least reward.
At the time this was, of course, frustrating, but it paid off in a couple of ways.
One, in my next position a lot of the skills I picked up that weren’t valuable enough in that position were incredibly valuable in another context. Second, I got a great referral from my supervisor and even though I have more successful things to showcase now I still would be confident in asking them for a reference.
What does “failing forward” mean to you?
Failing forward is the act of striving for success as hard as you can. Then, when things tumble, identifying what caused the fall, changing it, and coming out stronger on the other side. Every time you refine like this, you get even closer to a successful run at some of your biggest goals.
You can’t really ever fail, until you quit. If you’re running a marathon and you trip, that’s not a failure. Staying down and not finishing the race *because* you tripped is. So instead of looking at setbacks as failures, you have to look at them as intel. Why did I trip? Is my shoe untied? Am I not paying enough attention to debris on the road? My father once told me: “It’s fine to make mistakes, even a lot of them. Just try not to make the same one twice.” That’s failing forward.
Failing forward is essentially the same as learning from experience. While it’s never fun to fail, dwelling on failure delays any growth you would get from that failure. If you’re stuck in the past, you don’t have time look forward and try to solve a new problem. Skip the pity party and get back to it!
I mean, a year and a half later, Isaac hired me full-time at his company, so if that isn’t failing forward, I don’t know what is. I say that tongue-in-cheek, but really that’s an important thing to keep in perspective. Failure isn’t an end point — it’s just a step in the road. Life is long, and “successes” and “failures” both are just points you pass by on the journey.
There’s a Steven Pressfield quote that says something along the lines of “it’s better to be in the arena getting thrown from the bull than it is to be in the stands.” No matter the outcome, you’re getting game experience, and it’s making you smarter for the next go-round.
To fail forward is to take the information from the failure and apply it in a non-excessive way recalibrating your goals slightly to reflect the new data. For example, my next gig after the web developing one was in data analysis and analytics. A technical role, but one that was closer to my existing skillset from building websites on WordPress and doing SEO.
How have you used failure to accomplish your goals?
It helps me step back and not focus too much on the details in the beginning. Instead, I can focus on getting things rolling, period. Once plans are in motion, I end up running into bumps and can adjust from there. Once I’ve started, it’s harder to stop the further and further I get, so failure is almost like fuel. Giving me extra insight and a boost every once and a while.
Failure can be a stress test. If I set out to do something major, and I accomplish it without any major setbacks, I get nervous. Because that means my success might be shaky, it might be a house of cards. But if set out to accomplish something and I hit ten major hurdles, all of which I overcome and still succeed, then I know whatever I built was built to last, and can weather whatever storms come along. You *want* to fail a few times on anything major, just so you can see where the weak points are.
Failing to hit goals is what drives me to keep striving for them. Imagine what it would feel like to accomplish a goal on your first try every time you set one. Sure, there would be plenty of celebrating, but then you would realize that you aren’t setting hard enough goals, and those celebrations would feel empty. Any goal worth achieving is going to push you to the point that failure is likely inevitable, at least at the beginning.
Using failure to accomplish your goals is both an art and a science. The most important thing when you make a mistake is to be honest. You don’t need to do this publicly — you don’t have to be honest with anyone but yourself. But to yourself, be brutally honest. Mistakes make you smarter, but only if you actually look at the data. What went wrong? What does and doesn’t work? Analyze, regroup (keeping the new information in mind to hedge against making the same mistake again), and keep working towards your goals. Usually you’re better equipped after a failure to keep working towards them, not derailed (the way you initially think you might be).
For me, it’s crucial to shoot for opportunities that will have a fairly steep learning curve and make me a little uncomfortable at first. With the developer gig, it was too far and created undue anxiety and stress. However, where I landed next in data analysis and analytics was still challenging to me at first on a technical level, but they were impressed that I knew some of the tools and vocabulary around web developing.
What is one piece of advice you have for people who are afraid to fail?
First, I’d say that I understand. I, like most others, was terrified of failure. It takes time, but try to be conscious with your desicions and if you are about to back out of doing something, ask yourself if fear is inspiring that choice. If so, change the decision even if you don’t want to in the moment. Very often you will come out having learned something valuable and grown tougher as well.
Don’t think that you might fail. Know that it is an iron-clad, 100% certainty. You will not only fail, you will fail disastrously. There will be explosions. Nations will crumble. Okay, it probably won’t be that bad – but it’s definitely going to happen. It’s totally unavoidable, but so what? The worst place you can end up is just back where you started, and you’re already there now. And even if you do end up back there, you’ll still be better off, because you’ll be smarter and more ready for the next attempt. Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.
Don’t be! Like I learned, never having failed at something is a default failure anyway, so you’re already passively failing. You might as well be in control of your failure! Develop a failure-positive attitude like Spanx founder Sara Blakely where you celebrate your failures and only mourn not trying.
It isn’t nearly as big of a deal as you think it is. You’re afraid of failure because you think it’s going to devalue you, but it doesn’t. The biggest and most valuable lesson you have to learn the hard way is that failure really isn’t that big of a deal. It’s just a very small piece in the very big picture, not the first thing people will see about you, or the ultimate thing they’ll make a judgment on for the rest of your life. In fact, it makes you interesting. Christopher Lochhead (3-time Silocon Valley CMO, co-author of two bestsellers, and friend of Praxis) has a podcast titled Legends and Losers for just that reason. He doesn’t just want to talk about what you’re good at (the legendary) — he wasts to talk about his guests’ biggest failures (what Chris calls “the losery”), because usually those turn out to be the most defining parts of their story.
I was afraid of my failure with the book because I thought I’d shattered my chances of impressing Praxis and landing a full-time opportunity with them — and yet here I am, and I’m a better coach because of it.
You are not your past behavior and history. You may have failed, but are not a failure. We can always grow and get better often in extreme ways. There’s a really helpful heuristic called the growth mindset vs. the fixed mindset. Often, after a failure, it’s easy to fall into a fixed mindset (when that’s the time you need a growth mindset the most!)