Start celebrating failure

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My opinion of failure has completely changed in the last few years. I’ve obviously always known that failure is something to be avoided, something that makes you look like an idiot and means you should stop doing whatever it is and focus on the things you’re good at. This was emphasised at school, where getting a low grade in a test was seen as a bad thing, or building something that fell down meant a patronising pat on the back, never mind maybe you’ll do better next time. I was actually pretty successful in my classes and tests at school, but this added extra pressure to not fail – I obviously couldn’t possibly get less than an A in Maths, I was really good at it and one of the top in the class. Urgh, talk about pressure.

And then when we did fail it was sort of swept aside, excuses were made for it or we were told to just try harder or revise more. What lacked from all my failures was an air of curiosity, interest, a chance to learn, even celebration. Because failure is just that – a serious of experiments for you to learn from.

I’ve been particularly inspired by a recent TED Talk and flurry of related articles by Astro Teller (best name ever right?) who leads the team at X, Google’s moon shot company. They are creating some of the most crazy but world changing projects in existence, including a self-driving car and floating balloons to bring the internet to billions of people around the world. And they don’t just allow failure or find it curious at X, they literally celebrate it:

“We work hard at X to make it safe to fail. We killed over 100 investigations last year alone. I didn’t kill them. The teams themselves killed each one. And teams kill their ideas as soon as the evidence is on the table because they’re rewarded for it. They get applause from their peers. Hugs and high fives from their manager. They get promoted because of it. We’ve bonused every single person in teams that ended their projects, from teams as small as two to teams of more than thirty.”

How great would that be? “Amazing Alex, you completely failed that exam, well done! I’m so proud of you!” “Congratulations, what a fantastic failure on that presentation Alex, you completely didn’t cover anything that needed to be covered, hurray!”

OK, joke examples aside, failure is INEVITABLE in everyone’s lives. EVERYONE. 100% guaranteed, you will fail and will have failed. You’re not special because you fail more than other people, people fail all the time, they either don’t tell you or they don’t see it as a failure. Revising more or being more careful or preparing further in advance won’t guarantee that you won’t fail. And that is fantastic, because if you fail more it means you’re trying more new things, spending more of life doing the hard stuff and learning loads on the way.

I still find it hard to fail. When I mess up a project or meeting at work, I still feel a fool and like I want to hide in a hole. I often find myself thinking I am really not cut out for my job / parenting / coaching / whatever else I feel I’ve failed or fallen short at. However, more often and quicker I’ve been addressing that rude little voice in my head that says I’m a failure and asking it “OK, so what went wrong? Is there something I can change? Can I learn something from this? What will I do differently next time?” I haven’t got to the point of actually giving myself a mental high five for failing yet but maybe that’s what I should aim for.

The most important thing I want to do is instill this curiosity around failure in my daughter. I always want her to enjoy failing, be inquisitive about what could be done differently, try the hardest thing because she knows that’s the thing she’ll probably fail at and therefore learn the most from. I was disproportionately upset about the fact that when she started doing jigsaw puzzles she wouldn’t try the harder ones, or would get so frustrated when she couldn’t do them that she would sweep all the pieces angrily to the floor. I’ve been trying to gently encourage her to try again anyway, maybe later, but always keep trying, keep experimenting, keep light hearted about not achieving and keep learning.

Failure could be one of our greatest allies. In the words of Astro Teller:

“How are we going to try to kill our project today?”

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