For those who follow along on Twitter, will know that I’m writing a book on failure. The book is in two parts, the first looking at failure and how it affects us, the second on tools and techniques we can use to better deal with failure.
The question “But what if I fail?” is often seen as a blocker to people who feel they can’t start something. Today’s post is not about that. I wanted to look at the specifics of what you can do when something goes wrong.
What do we mean by fail?
To fail you need to need to know three things:
- What are you trying to achieve?
- How do you know if you tried?
- How do you know if you were successful?
Without these three you can’t really be sure if you’ve failed or not.
Firstly you need to have an idea of what you want to achieve, this could be just an idea or at the other extreme, a detailed plan.
To fail at something you need to know if you did it or not. If you fail to start it’s not that the challenge that you failed but your ability start things. For example, you might attend an evening class in welding and could define “trying” as attending 3 classes, bearing in mind that the first will mostly be safety briefings and demos.
Now that you’ve tried something did you meet your criteria for success? For different people, their definition of success will be different. Following the welding example, one might want to pass a test and be certified so they could do welding professionally, another completing a project and someone else simply welding two pieces together and them staying together.
Tried it, failed it
So now you’ve done your thing and did not have success. What next?
There’s a fourth question that can ask yourself, which is key to what you do next. That is “Why?”. Your “Why” will tell you how important this really is to you.
If your “why” is not that important then perhaps the failure is not that important either. You can just right it off and walk away.
If your “why” is about self-improvement then you can use your failure as a learning experience? Ask questions such as “what could I have done better?” or “what were the causes of this failure?”
If your “why” is for a longer-term goal then perhaps look at repeating the task. Take my footstool project, that fell apart the first time I did it and it took a redesign and rebuild. Luckily I was able to salvage the materials and rework them.
For short term goals, salvage could be the appropriate tactic. If you were planning you use your welding skills to complete a project and now can’t then are there other joining techniques you can use or could someone else weld it for you?
If you reflect on your “why” and realise there are other approaches to get to the end goal then a fork might be appropriate. Change what you are doing for something different. When I was a college, I did not get good enough grades to continue the 4-year course that I started. So I swapped to the 3-year course and was allowed to continue. Several of my college friends failed the first year and changed to a different course which was more suited to their skills. For example, a physicist swapped to a computing degree.
Own your failure
It is important that you understand how your failure will affect you and affect others. Owning your failure is firstly about accepting that it happened and then working through the repercussions of your actions.
As covered in the first chapters of the book, failure can cause an emotional effect on you. This can be particularly pronounced if it is your first failure or the costs were high. It might be you need time before you can move on or possibly help to deal with this failure.
Similarly, if there were others depending on you, they too could have a strong emotional response. However, this does not mean you should shy from telling them, they may be able to help or offer advice. Also, you should be wary of others taking advantage at this time. Your failure to deliver “The perfect Birthday card” on time does not make you responsible for the success of the whole of Great Aunt Mimi’s Birthday celebrations.
But what if I fail?
Failure is a challenging time for us all but by knowing why we tried in the first place we can choose appropriate action. By owning our failure we can help ourselves and others move on.
Have you ever failed? It would be great to share is so we can use it to help others. Failure – A personal example