How to Redefine Failure so You're Not Crippled by It
Given the odds that entrepreneurs face and the plethora of competitive and innovative minds that exist out there today, a startup has to walk a fine line between failure and success for the first few years of its existence -- or until the debt wears off and cash begins to flow like the River of Capistrano.
Failure isn’t fun. In fact, the pain associated with failure is the root cause behind every phobia out there today (right behind showing up to school naked), according to personal leadership and self-improvement guru Tony Robbins. Actually, it’s not so much pain that motivates but rather the desire to avoid pain that serves as the spark behind one's personal fire.
So how can you move past this mental block of failure and join the thousands of other entrepreneurs in their startup efforts? Let me share with you a (really quick) story.
Prior to enlisting in the Navy, many friends asked me, “What happens if you don’t make it through SEAL training?” to which I replied, “Don’t know -- I’m not really focused on failing.” This was never an intention to be arrogant (I hate arrogance) but rather an effort to demonstrate where my mind was. Success was the only next-state I saw.
The point is, whether you see failure as an absolute state never to be reconciled again or as a temporary stepping-stone towards improvement, you’re right. In my experience, there are two ways that successful people see failure:
1. As a means to an end.
2. As an opportunity to learn.
Edgar Schein, former MIT professor and organizational development expert, highlights three ways to do this:
1. Semantic redefinition. Words can mean something different from what was originally assumed. Example: "Wow, you look phat in that dress!"
2. Cognitive broadening. A given concept can be much more broadly interpreted than originally interpreted. Example: A compass is used to navigate across land, but conceptually, one's internal compass is used to navigate right and wrong.
3. New standards of judgment or evaluation. The anchors used for judgment and comparisons are not absolute, and if a different anchor is used then one’s scale of judgment shifts. Example: Quantitative versus qualitative metrics (finance vs. HR).
Here’s a real life example of number three. Ed Catmull, co-founder and former president of Pixar Animation Studios, used failure as an opportunity to improve rather than to headhunt individuals' faults. In his latest book, Creativity Inc, he contends that personal accountability is important but letting people work through disappointments is oftentimes more valuable because they develop the self-efficacy to make their own decisions.
If every time an employee is shot down for making a mistake then the incentive to always be right (and therefore avoid risk) will be greater than the willingness to create. The once apparent "fangs" associated with failure become dull because employees are empowered to act and solve problems themselves.
Consider Toyota's initial approach with employee engagement. Instead of searching out employees who made mistakes, the automaker empowered each and every employee to stop the assembly line whenever they thought there was a discrepancy in quality. Doing so afforded greater ownership in each person’s role.
Below are more ways to turn that frown from failure upside down:
Speak to the positive. Remove all contractions that end in "’t," such as "can't," "won't" and "don't" and see how your mind must refocus. It has to focus on the opposite because by removing the 't you take away the negative, and the only way to communicate is to speak to the positive.
Avoid bucketing failure. Failure means different things to different people. A new product release without ample advertisements may be a failure for marketing, but perhaps HR didn’t have the right people in the right places, which is a different failure. Either way, people see failure through different lenses.
Take the 30-day challenge. For one month, write down three things each day that you’re thankful for, but do not repeat anything. For example, if you're thankful for your spouse one day, you cannot be thankful for him/her again another day (sorry, honey). The goal here is to push your brain to find success where others might see failure.
Just like anything else, there is always something to learn from failure. Remember, your brain will find an answer to any question it is asked -- it’s just a matter of asking the right one.