“How to fail” – by avoiding failure…

May 14, 2013

How To Fail - Insanity by Einstein

Why do we, as humans, keep doing the same thing over and over again?  Albert Einstein would call that, insanity.

Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results. – Albert Einstein

The most common way that I see people failing, is by trying to avoid failure. By avoid, I mean either bypassing or ignoring failure as an option.
One of 2 things likely happens when you avoid failure – you either spend so much time worrying about failing and mitigating every single risk possible that you never start addressing the problem, or you got waist deep in mud and realized that you lost your shoes about 6 hours ago.

It is okay to fail.

In fact, I encourage it!  The sooner you find out the wrong way to do something, the sooner you can learn from that experience and continue on your journey.  Eric Ries refers to this as Validated Learning.  Eric refers to building products and testing out demands, but the same mindset of Validated Learning applies to our every-day tasks as well.

However, it is not okay to avoid failure.

Instead of consistently trying to avoid failure…I challenge you to embrace it!  Identify multiple ways something could be done, and define what failure looks like for those paths.  Seth Godin called out in 2011 that “when you fail”, you need to own it, call it by name, and resist playing any blame-games.  If we all adopt a mindset that makes it okay for failure to occur, then I believe that these issues won’t be as prevalent when failure does happen.

Instead, failure should be a trigger to step back and…

  • get a new perspective on the current task,
  • apply the things you’ve learned so far,
  • and potentially identify an even different path from your original plan.

Defining what failure looks like isn’t a difficult task.
Here are few ways that I have previously defined what a failure might look like on a given task:

  • timebox for results – “if this doesn’t succeed by 3:00 p.m. tomorrow, then I am going to stop what I’m doing and re-orient myself around the problem”
  • continually re-ask the problem – make certain that you are solving the correct problem, and if at any time you find that you are not solving the correct problem, stop!
  • don’t repeat – use your past experiences to help guide you, if you find yourself repeating a previous mistake/path, take a moment and give yourself some time to make sure that this time it is truly different (bonus points if you can answer WHY it is different)

I “failed” at writing this blog post 2 times before getting my stories and examples just right.  My first 2 ideas didn’t carry the message I was trying to convey, and I knew that because I kept asking myself “does this paragraph help achieve my message of failing with grace”?  I would have gone insane trying to squeeze the message out of a bad analogy (which I am terribly guilty of).

Don’t avoid failure.  Embrace it!

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