Leader driven Harmony #7: Failure is required (Part II)

by Mack McKinney on January 14, 2011

In the previous post we learned about the danger of not experiencing enough failure in life and we watched John make a bad decision that could have gotten him killed.  We also talked about how well-meaning people who shelter us from failure can rob us of the mental toughness that we need to get through life, thereby actually increasing the chance of our failing later on in some major way.

In business we are seeing Gen-Yers enter the workforce having never been allowed to really fail at anything.  People who have tried and failed are much more attractive to most employers than people who have led sheltered lives, protected from failure, with teachers and parents hovering over them and protecting their increasingly brittle self-images.  Job applicants in this latter group often have fragile egos, cannot accept constructive criticism, and (worst case) may feel entitled to a career that is completely arranged and managed for them, not by them.  This is a recipe for career disaster.

Companies like to see some minor failures in a new hire’s past because they understand the value of the subsequent lessons-learned.  Candidates don’t list failures on their resumes, of course, so corporate interviewers in HR listen for “I made a mistake and learned from it” statements during job interviews:

  1. “I launched a small business in computer repair in high school but it failed after only a year.  I didn’t understand marketing and the local Geek Squad put me out of business pretty quickly.”
  2. “I started a business in web design but I could never afford the design software programs (Dream Weaver, etc.) that I needed to do a first class design.  So I learned the hard way about the importance of getting enough capital up front when you start a small business.”
  3. “I tried free-lance video production for a year but I could never buy a really good camera, so my videos couldn’t compete with established firms.  Also I had no formal training in camera work and I guess that showed.”

But just reading about other entrepreneurs’ failures won’t really drive the lessons home – – – only personally failing can do it.  Losing your own savings in a failed business venture is much more effective as a teaching tool than watching somebody else lose their savings.  Not catching a cash flow problem in time to fix it, and having to lay-off a friend who works for you, will teach you a banking lesson you’ll never forget.  The stakes are lower in school as opposed to the rough and tumble business world, but the lessons are even more important.  I hope you’ll learn (or DID learn) in school that:

  1. Failure is a part of life.  And getting past failure and learning from it are the most crucial of life-skills.  Not everyone in a class should get an “A” grade.  Some people should get failing grades and teachers who do this are doing the student a favor.  After about the third grade, not everyone on a sports team should get an award because, if they do, ALL the awards mean nothing.  The competitive spirit will be stifled.  There SHOULD be awards for the best students in a sport, class, contest, etc.  And parents of students who did not get an award should tell their children “Hey, not getting the award doesn’t make you a LOSER.  You were just not the winner. You’ll need to try harder next time.”  This builds determination, helps youngsters set high goals for themselves and work toward them, and helps them form a resilient character for protection against occasional disappointment.
  2. If well-meaning people are preventing you from ever failing, they are doing you no favors and you are not pushing yourself hard enough!  Ask them to let you climb out on a limb a little by permitting you to make non-life-critical decisions and then living with the consequences.  You’ll still want a safety net to prevent cataclysmic failures while you are learning the ropes, but you need to be allowed to screw-up!  My old flight instructor Larry Davis had my friend John as a primary flight student.  One day during pattern practice at the local airport, Larry emphasized the importance of maintaining flying speed and staying at the correct altitude.  After letting John get too low on the approach, and slightly (but not yet dangerously) slow, Larry said quietly and calmly “John, unless you do something pretty fast, we are both going to die.”  – – – Notice that Larry didn’t tell John WHAT to do. – – –  With heart now racing, John had to quickly scan across the gauges and see the low airspeed, and then see the low altitude on the altimeter, and then fix the problem by immediately adding power (gas) to speed the airplane up and start a climb to a safe altitude.  Larry let John feel the rising panic, and sort it out on his own.  He let him fail in his approach to landing and only intervened just short of a fatal outcome, perhaps also a self-preservation tactic in this case!   The story was embarrassing when retold around the airport and John learned the lesson well.
  3. If you are still in school, you need to get a little more “edgy” in your academic efforts.  My son is a senior in an Exercise Science program at a major university but instead of the normal progression into physical therapy after graduation, he is interested in medical school and surgery.  The college’s internship program pushed him toward spending all 480 hrs in his last semester “shadowing” a physical therapist.  But instead, he worked with the college and with a local hospital to build an internship program split among the hospital’s emergency room, the surgery department and physical therapy.  It had never been done and required a lot of schmoozing and coordinating but it is working!  He started this in time to either get it arranged, or not, by the deadline for internship arrangements.  And he had a back-up plan (480 hrs in a PT department) in case the other plan didn’t come together.  But he wanted to try the non-standard, custom internship approach and his college counselor had the wisdom to say “Sure, try it.  See if you can get the college to agree to it and then see if you can find a hospital willing to do it.  What the heck.”

So I am asking you to fail.  I am asking you to push yourself hard enough that you sometimes screw-up.  As you fail, don’t let your failures unnecessarily impact innocent people and don’t fail in catastrophic ways.  For example, risking your college savings on launching a competitor to Facebook might not be wise;  and moving to Nashville so you can meet Taylor Swift and have her fall in love with you doesn’t have much chance of succeeding.  But push enough in your hobbies, job, profession or academics that you fall short sometimes.  Set goals that stretch your performance.  And fail sometimes.  It is OK. You’ll learn the sting of failure, you’ll learn how NOT to do it next time, and you’ll develop the mental strength to fail, get up, and try something different.  Life demands failure but you get to decide when!   Paradoxically, the occasional failures on little things, through the years, will make you much less likely to make (or become) a major failure later in life.

Copyright: Solid Thinking Corporation

Related Articles

Previous post:

Next post: