Jul 20

Embracing failure

sometimes you have to roll the dice

If you never fail, you’re not trying

If you never fail, you’re not trying.

Successful people usually have a number of failures behind them. Richard Branson has lost more money than most people ever earn in a lifetime, and is obviously extremely successful . Anyone even remember the Virgin Pulse media player?

It’s natural to want to avoid failure. During our evolution, failure would have had pretty horrendous results, and we are still hard wired to avoid it. In the charity world, failure can mean the loss of hard-earned income, donor trust, or even the respect of your peers.  I am sure we all know someone who seems to have risen to the top without making an impact, but just by playing safe. But failure is essential to growth. Just to be clear, we are talking about failure that comes from taking risks, not from not showing up!



Ever see the movie Awakenings?  In it, Dr Sayer (based on the real-life professor of neurology and psychiatry, author, writer: Oliver Sacks) tells a hospital Director that he spent five years trying to extract myelin from four tons of earthworms. He adds he was the “only one who really believed it. The rest of them said it couldn’t be done.”

The Director points out that it can’t, to which our Doctor replies “I know … I proved it.”

In the scientific method, failure is just as important as success. It closes avenues and test hypotheses. It leads to the development of ideas and adds to the sum of knowledge. So, if you never fail, you aren’t contributing.

Playing it safe can have other problems. You can’t always tell why something is working. Most undertakings have a number of components that seem to contribute to the outcome. But within each working paradigm there will be a number of untested aspects. If something is working as it is, you have no way of knowing or rating each process. You could be missing the unexpected innovation that changes the game.

OK, so that’s the theory, but people still internalize failure which is why we try to avoid it.

So on a personal level, try to see failure for what it is – finding the limits of an idea. Its not your failure – its the limits of an idea, its point of failure. By analyzing failure in this manner, you can now see why other approaches do work, and this can help you improve and refine them.

On an institutional level, it might be worth finding volunteers to explicitly go out and test ideas to destruction! While these trailblazers lead the way, regularly presenting their findings, you can encourage a new level of openness and honesty. You can make it part of the suitable meeting (perhaps an innovation meeting?) where staff can present what they have learned in a non-judgmental environment. Who knows what you’ll come up with!


Image courtesy of Freedigitalphotos.net