It’s rare in this world to see people celebrating their failures, in most cases people seem to want to move on as quickly as possible. But pausing to take a closer look at what did happen is the road to improvement and in some cases transformation. Over the course of a few paragraphs, I will try to take you through a scenario that will help for a better understanding and offer some observations to make the most out of understanding your failure.
When things go wrong
Given the sheer magnitude of the things we engage in on a daily, weekly, monthly and yearly basis it’s inevitable some of these endeavors will not go our way, in essence we will fail to get or achieve what we want. If we don’t take the time to look hard at our failure, we are in most cases doomed to repeat it, if we try again at all. The second part of that, if we try again at all, is a major determinate. In most cases when people fail at something what they learn from it is to not try it again. But as most of us know it takes several attempts at something to achieve it.
Take for example learning how to ride a bike. There are many things that must be done simultaneously to achieve this task. You must create momentum, steer and balance all at the same time. When we try to concentrate on just one of these micro tasks, we take ourselves out of the combined effort that contributes to the riding of the bike.
So, in essence you need to keep looking to the big picture or at a macro level. Thomas Eddison is famous for his invention of a lot of household items we use today. While working on the light bulb he was plagued with difficulties. At some point during his work on this new invention he was quoted. The problems of achieving a bulb that would last more than a few seconds were enormous. He said when asked about his repeated failures and how he was sustaining himself, “I have not failed. I have found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” He understood on a deep level that what he was trying to achieve was achievable given the right set of circumstances. Also knowing what didn’t work was valuable.
So, what were some of those circumstances, and what do we take away from it. Well for one you can’t keep repeating the same thing expecting different results. Reptation while effective when trying to master a physical task that has a well-established roadmap for mastery is somewhat less effective when you are blazing a trail of new discovery.
Most of the problems we face as individuals today are a variation on a theme, in essence we are building on the work of others. So, it is important to understand the fundamentals and how they apply, or as an old friend used to say, “you can’t color outside the lines until you know where the lines are.” Once you have established some competency within a given discipline two things are likely to happen. Some will ratchet up the level of difficulty to increase their competency, and along with that increasing their risk of failure. Conversely some will continue to color inside the lines being less excepting of risk and possible failure.
That brings us to another important principle of using failure as a catalyst for success.
You need to understand what about you attempt was not effective. For this to work you need to be attentive to your understanding of the problem, and to catalog the steps to achieving success. The military douse a nice job with this step by utilizing something they call an after action repot. In essence all parties that took place in an operation sit down directly afterward and talk about what worked and what didn’t. By doing this directly after an operation you can capitalize on people’s fresh memories of the tasks and see things from multiple points of view. When you take an approach like this it starts to become a celebrative effort. If you allow all parties to give unvarnished feedback you are likely to identify the pitfalls in planning and execution that were missed. This will allow for better execution of follow up attempts.
You can use this same principle for planning on a personal level. Take the time after any attempt and ask yourself some questions about what went well and where things seemed to be less than optimal. When the answers start coming write it all down. Try to do this as soon as possible after you try something where your results don’t match your expectations. This principle is used by most scientists, allowing them to keep a detailed record of what doesn’t work in an effort to get closer to the desired outcome.
In the end success is hidden among a myriad of choices, knowing what choice to make most of the time boils down to past experience. This brings us to the last part success and failure, understanding the difference. For anything to be considered a success you need to define what success is. Having a well-defined definition of success to you is what matters, don’t go off someone else’s definition unless it ticks all the boxes for you. If fate should swing your way, and you achieve it on the first attempt take the time to understand how to make it repeatable with some of the same steps.