Failure is an essential element of success, as many entrepreneurs, inventors and leaders can attest.
“It's fine to celebrate success, but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure,” Bill Gates said. We always shower praise on those who have triumphed. Very rarely do we examine all the times the triumphant have failed, and analyze how they turned their “luck” around.
Indeed, failure is an essential element of success, as many entrepreneurs, inventors and leaders can attest. But that doesn’t make it feel any easier when it happens. A rejection can easily send you spiraling, making you forget — at least momentarily — that failure can be a stepping stone to future triumph.
Among psychologists, education and parenting experts, there’s a renewed interest in researching our response to failure and the way it shapes our eventual achievements. Studies show that grit, not just intelligence, can predict whether a student will have academic success, and that having a “growth mindset” — the belief that one can learn new skills and expand one’s intelligence — can influence achievement.
Here are a few things that I’ve found to be true when we have a healthy fear of failure:
• We’re motivated to move. Call it the stick portion of the carrot-and-stick routine if you will, but it’s also reality. Every parent of a teenager knows that their child will be suddenly motivated to learn how to do laundry when facing the prospect of attending a party without his or her favorite outfit. So it is with us adults. When we want to avoid a very real failure, we’re not likely to sit still.
• We’re eager to take action. Ancient wisdom says that our hunger drives us forward — and that’s not a bad thing if you want to eat. Intentional leadership expert Michael Hyatt puts it this way when describing someone who is “hungry” to find success: “In short, a hungry person ‘plays full out,’ holding nothing back. More than anything, he wants to win and is willing to pay the price to do so.” Sounds like someone you’d want on your team, yes?
• We’re more open to taking risks. There’s just no incentive to take risks when we’re drifting comfortably on the placid waters of Lake Status Quo. Calculated risks fuel our growth when we step out from where we are to where we want to be. There is no sure thing in leadership — except the consequences of standing still.
• Failure creates new opportunities. Many people believe that everything happens for a reason, we just don’t know what it is at the time. Failures often bring unforeseen opportunities that would not have been available without the failure in the first place. You often need to close one door so that another door of opportunity can be opened for you. Failure is a way of one door closing. Failure is seldom the end; it is often a bright beginning.
• Failure provides answers. If you don’t try and fail, you will never know if your idea or method is going to work. You spend time worrying that you don’t have the answer; you wonder whether it would have worked. The pain of regret is far worse than the pain of failure. When you fail, you can start again; with regret, you will never know.
• We’re inspired to learn from others. Coming face-to-face with the reality of potential failure can humble us. And that’s a good thing. As Kevin Hall, author of the book Aspire notes, it’s in the fertile soil of humility that the seeds of success can best sprout. When we think we might not be able to figure things out on our own, we’re more likely to be willing to ask of others, “How did you do it?”
Bottom line? The fear of failure keeps us from settling for “good enough.” And not settling is essential to success. When good enough is good enough, the best has already left the building.