You’ve started a company and it goes belly-up. Or you launched a new product and not only does it fail to sell, customers actually hate it. Or you get fired.
What happens when you dare to dream, make that dream real, and then fail?
There’s the plucky Henry Ford quotation which admittedly, and almost embarrassingly, I have used: “Failure is only the opportunity to begin again more intelligently.” Since Ford was eventually wildly successful, this aphorism does reassure, but it also jauntily skips over the emotional precipice on which we teeter when we fail.
No matter how many chirpy quotes I may tweet out, when I fail my initial response is despondency, pessimism, and the feeling that perhaps I need to relocate to another city because I can never show my face in public. Ever. Again. I tend to identify with Margery Eldredge Howell, who said: “There’s dignity in suffering, nobility in pain, but failure is a salted wound that burns and burns again.”
As I have grappled with my own this-just-may-break-me failures, I am increasingly convinced that dreaming must be a process, an engine of experimentation. As we practice innovating we are propelled up a personal learning curve—and we begin to accomplish our dreams. But implicit in daring to disrupt the status quo is daring to fail. As we learn by doing and do by learning something will eventually (and inevitably) not work. As former DARPA official Ken Gabriel said, “An important part of disruption is having the nerve to take on a really big failure.”
At this critical juncture in the process of dreaming, we must decide how we will approach failure: Did I fail my way into a black hole? Or is failure a tool that will help me innovate more effectively?
For those inclined toward the latter, consider the following:
1. Acknowledge sadness. When you start a company, launch a new product, or take on a job, there is the fantasy of a simple linear world: you will work hard and your dream will happen. And then it doesn’t work. My whales of fails have ranged from not making cheerleader during high school (mortifying at the time) to bombing a speech in front of hundreds of people (still mortifying).
Then there was the experience of being fired and backing a business that imploded. Apart from feeling mortified, I was heartbroken. I had been all-in. I had envisioned a future in which I would achieve a goal, perhaps be hailed as the conquering hero. And then I wasn’t. I’ve learned it is important to grieve. When we sublimate the sadness, we risk losing our passion, an essential lubricant for the engine of innovation.
Photo: Whitney Johnson/HBR
2. Jettison shame. If you let a failure become a referendum on you, the millstone of shame will drown you and your dreams. According to the groundbreaking research of shame and vulnerability expert Dr. Brené Brown, this is especially acute for those involved in professional sports, the military, and corporate life. Paraphrasing from the book Daring Greatly, Brown writes, “When the ethos is ‘kill or be killed’, ‘control or be controlled’, failure is tantamount to ‘be killed’.”
Being perceived as weak elicits tremendous shame. For example, that speech I bombed: by the time I finished, it looked as if I’d just run 3 miles, I was perspiring so much. The business I fronted that went belly-up: shouldn’t I have better read the situation? How could I purport to be a savvy investor?
The shame we feel when we fail must be deep-sixed, labelled as the detritus that it is. If it isn’t, we may never speak in public again, throw ourselves into another job or invest in another company. Failure doesn’t limit dreaming and innovation—shame does. Once we pull shame out of the equation, we eliminate the drag on innovating and gain the lift we need to accelerate back into daring.
3. Learn the right lesson. One of the reasons we love the Henry Ford quote is the context: Ford failed and learned, rising triumphantly. It’s also why I like this quote from J.K. Rowling: “Rock bottom became the solid foundation upon which I rebuilt my life.”
As we are faced with interim failures in our innovation process, the narrative we construct is key. It’s not just that you learn a lesson. It’s about learning the right kind of lesson, or what Lean Startup guru Eric Ries describes as validated learning. Which elicits the question: what valuable truth did you discover about the present and future prospects of your start-up (or your dream) by failing?
For example, did I learn to never speak in public again? Rather, I discovered that standing behind a podium became a barrier that made the speech about me, which made me overwhelmingly nervous. I learned that moving away from the podium helped me have a conversation with and connect to my audience. Was my takeaway from the business that imploded to never invest in another friend’s business? Instead, I gained the valuable insight that vetting prospective partners is vital, as are clear rules of engagement.
“Learning is the essential unit of progress for start-ups,” writes Ries. Learning, I would argue, is also a basic unit of progress for dreaming.
I say it’s time we put failure in its proper place. For most of us, the mere prospect of failure is a take-no-prisoners mind game, pushing us to the edge of an emotional cliff, where shame would happily push us over.
But in a world in desperate need of innovation, it’s time to bury shame and to see failure for what it is—an opportunity to learn valuable truths and a signal that our start-up, job, product or idea matters, really matters, so much so that we are willing to invest not only our minds, but our hearts. That’s something worth dreaming about.
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