How to Fail Well

There’s a natural human desire to avoid failing. If we care enough to do something, we want to do it right. Admitting failure hurts.

I’ve made enough mistakes in my life to have learned something: not just individual lessons learned from particular mistakes, but a big picture sense of how to recognize when things aren’t going well. I haven’t completely mastered the art, but I’m willing to share what I know—after all, I’ve learned so much from others’ mistakes that it’s time I shared my own lessons.

Steps to Successful Failure

Falter. If possible, avoid complete failure by nipping it in the bud. “When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging,” is great advice. As soon as you realize that things aren’t turning out the way you planned or hoped, step back.

Acknowledge. This might be the hardest step—admitting there’s a problem. But it’s necessary to confront your lack of success in order to correct it. The farther you go in the wrong direction, the more effort it will require to get back to where you need to be and the longer it will take. You may also minimize the damage.

Inquire. Figure out what’s going wrong, why, and how it might be fixed. The important thing here is not to point fingers and blame people; that will certainly cause hard feelings and make everyone defensive. Be as objective as possible. Were goals not clearly defined? Was the process not explained fully or is it not working out? Did unexpected circumstances arise? Assume that everyone did the best they could. It’s rare that people deliberately sabotage a project (and if they do, that’s the problem you need to tackle first) and deserve to be blamed. Foster a cooperative atmosphere in which people can analyze what went wrong and why without hurting anyone’s feelings.

Learn. Ultimately this is where you’re going, but you need those three earlier steps. Make your mistakes, admit that something’s not working right, and figure out where the problem is. Then find a solution. You may need to do this a few times until all the bugs are worked out.

Thomas Edison famously said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” I’m happy to report that it’s never taken me 10,000 tries to either get something right or realize that it was beyond my capacity or violated the laws of nature. But I’ve also tried my hand at many new things that didn’t quite work out on the first try—and that includes some things I’ve done with this blog. There have been several posts, pages and widgets that never made it to Publish. That’s not a bad thing; those unsuccessful attempts (read: failures) eventually were corrected and allowed to go public.

This is the first in a series of posts on the subject of Failure (tagged #FAIL). I’ll be looking at a few “failures” that turned out well in the end or proved to be valuable learning experiences for those involved. If you have examples you’d like to suggest or any stories to share, please leave a comment.

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