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  • Joanna

Getting comfortable with failure, and a book recommendation

This is a question that I have struggled with myself and it is one that often comes up in discussions with coaching clients and mentees. I will share my thoughts on how to overcome the fear of failure, why accepting failure is important in creating a culture of learning and innovation and also give you a reading recommendation.

For many of us, our academic training through school and university focused on success being linked to getting the answer right. This starts very early on in tests at Primary school, and then on to important exams at various times in our lives. We learn that passing is good and failing is bad.

Learning and growing isn’t so black and white. I am sure most people have watched a baby learning to crawl and then walk. They have repeated failures but they keep going. They are absorbing lessons about what didn’t work and then adjusting their approach until they succeed. It’s a natural part of learning. Why is there so much fear and shame surrounding failure?

This is something I have actively had to wrestle with myself. At school I worked hard, I was smart and I got good grades. This reinforced the message on how to be successful. My friends and family will tell you that I hate not being good at something and have at times avoided things where this might be the case. Entering the world of work forced me to change my approach. I was suddenly in a world where just intellect and hard work don’t necessarily lead to success in the same way. I actively have to remind myself that making mistakes is inevitable and that learning from the experience is what is important. It can in fact lead to huge leaps and exciting opportunities.

This connects to the idea of a Growth Mindset, first coined by psychologist Carol Dweck. The growth mindset indicates that we are constantly able to learn and grow and are not fixed in our knowledge as adults. This is something that many inventors and entrepreneurs know well. There are many failures before they make their breakthroughs and it is extremely rare to get it right first time.

We can apply this in the world of work by acknowledging that we won’t always get things right. The most important thing is to understand what went wrong and learn from it. It might have been a bad idea, however it also might have been due to changing external circumstances, lack of demand, lack of suitable resources or skills. It could be a good idea but at the wrong time or in the wrong place. Being able to adjust your strategy and approach, taking on board what you learned will likely lead to success.

I think it’s very important to be open on this with your teams. It helps keep your credibility when things don’t go right, as inevitably happens. It also gives them the confidence to try things and it to be ok for it not to always work. The priority has to be in the learning. If you don’t create this safe space for failure then there is not likely to be much innovation or new ideas coming though. I give a brief example from my time in China in a short video I recorded for Tigerhall.

With my coaching clients, I emphasise the importance of applying this mindset as they try new things. In changing their approach to something, it is an experiment and the learning is the most valuable aspect. For example, did the different style of communication work? Did it feel comfortable to them? What did they learn from trying it out? Even if it falls flat, that is still an important point to note and learn from, something to do differently next time. The essential part is trying something new and not avoiding it because of fear of failure.

It is very easy to say though and not so easy to do. I have to consciously remind myself of this and get comfortable with the discomfort of things not going well. As I have launched my business it is a principle I am trying to hold on to. It is better to try, whether launching my website or gaining more clients, and see what works and what doesn’t, than to try to make things perfect and never get started.

For anyone interested in this topic I would highly recommend reading “Black Box Thinking” by Matthew Syed. I was introduced to this book a few years ago and it has left a lasting impression on me, more so than any other management book. The book works through various situations and highlights how being open about learning from failure leads to improvements across the board. For example, in the airline industry where there is a thorough review of data from the eponymous black boxes after an accident, which is shared across the industry. It also highlights other fields where resisting that learning and not admitting that mistakes can be made means there is no or limited change. Syed gives various examples throughout the book. It is very readable and easy to understand using real case studies.

All feedback is welcome as part of my own learning and I’d love to hear from you on your learning and experiences through making mistakes.

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