Business people, high school football coaches and politicians like to talk about winning as if it were the only acceptable — only possible — outcome of any endeavor. It’s driven by a sort of superstitious belief that even thinking about failure is tantamount to allowing it to happen. I like to win as much as the next guy, but it’s worth taking a moment to consider the value of failure.
For better or worse, I consider myself something of an authority on the subject of making mistakes. I’ve made mistakes as an employee, as a boss, as a spouse and as a parent. And here’s what I’ve learned. If your goal is to never fail, you must limit your actions to doing what you’ve always done. As one business pundit put it, “Only the mediocre are always at their best.” But, if your goal is to reach higher and achieve something new, you must expect to fail quickly and course-correct until you get it right. If you aren’t failing, you’re not pushing hard enough.
Of course, nobody likes to make mistakes, and if we do it often enough, it can damage our self-esteem. This makes people risk-adverse and stifles innovation. That’s why I always ask leaders to give their people a safe place to fail. This doesn’t mean, however, that we look the other way and pretend the mistakes haven’t happened. Or blame someone else. We all need to own our mistakes. When we overlook failures, in ourselves or in others, we are throwing away the invaluable opportunity to understand what went wrong and learn how to improve next time.
They say that it took Thomas Edison 1,000 attempts before he invented a working electric light bulb. He recognized the first 1000 “failures” as learning steps that made success possible. The value of failure is that we learn how to learn. The only true failure is not learning.