The world is tough on people who fail. After all, we are taught early on it is best to be a winner. The trophies are shinier; the medals are bigger; and the applause is louder. Making a name for ourselves and working our way to the top is what it’s all about. Right?
Not so fast.
In my almost three decades of leadership experience, I’ve come to realize progress and success comes in many shapes and takes many forms. In fact, I’ve come to the conclusion that one of the most valuable but underestimated leadership lessons we must learn is the ability to “fail forward.”
I first came across the concept of failing forward in a book by leadership expert John Maxwell. He describes failing forward as being able to get back up after you’ve been knocked down, learn from your mistake, and move forward in a better direction. In other words, to fail forward is to learn to see failure as a friend and not a foe. Take the experience of some of history’s most successful people as proof.
Vincent Van Gogh failed as an art dealer, flunked his entrance exam to theology school, and was fired by the church after an ill-fated attempt at missionary work. In fact, during his life, he seldom experienced anything other than failure as an artist. Although a single painting by Van Gogh would fetch in excess of $100 million today, in his lifetime Van Gogh sold only one painting, four months prior to his death. And it sold for less than many of us spend at Starbucks in a week.
Of course, Van Gogh isn’t the only famous person who has failed. Before developing his theory of relativity, Albert Einstein struggled academically. In fact, one headmaster expelled Einstein from school and another teacher predicted that he would never amount to anything. Einstein even managed to fail his entrance exam into college.
Prior to dazzling the world with his sensational athletic skill, Michael Jordan was cut from his sophomore basketball team. Despite earning six championships and accumulating a long list of Most Valuable Player and other honors during his professional career, Jordan still missed over 12,000 shots, lost nearly 400 games, and failed to make more than 25 would-be game-winning baskets.
Failure didn’t stop Vincent Van Gogh from painting, Albert Einstein from theorizing, or Michael Jordan from playing basketball, but it has paralyzed countless leaders and prevented them from reaching their potential. And failure shouldn’t stop you if you are intent in becoming the leader you are capable of becoming.
So how can you learn to fail forward? I would start by guarding yourself from believing the following mistruths:
Don’t Believe Failure Is Avoidable. It’s Not. You have likely heard the saying, “To err is human, to forgive divine.” That was written by Alexander Pope more than 250 years ago—his words are a reminder that people are prone to making mistakes. Guard yourself from buying into the notion that mistakes and missteps can be avoided. They can’t. Accept that failing is a natural part of pushing your potential and pursuing your dreams.
Don’t Believe Failure is The Enemy. It’s Not. Most people are so afraid of failure they try to avoid it like the plague. But in doing so they fail to recognize it takes adversity to create success. It takes hardship to build endurance. It takes crisis to build character. Musicologist Eloise Ristad emphasizes that, “When we give ourselves permission to fail, we at the same time give ourselves permission to excel.” She’s right. Begin to view failure as less foe and more friend; more opportunity than opponent.
Don’t Believe Failure Is Irreversible. It’s Not. There’s an old saying in Texas that goes: “It doesn’t matter how much milk you spill as long as you don’t lose your cow.” In other words, mistakes are not irreversible. The problems come when you see only the “spilled milk” and not the bigger picture. NBA coach Rick Pitino likes to remind his players, “Failure is good. It’s fertilizer. Everything I’ve learned about coaching I’ve learned from making mistakes.” Failing is simply a natural and necessary part of growing into the best possible version of ourselves.
Don’t Believe Failure Is Optional. It’s Not. According to business professor Lisa Amos of Tulane University, entrepreneurs fail an average of 4 times before they finally succeed. They recognize that three steps forward and two steps back still equals one step forward. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking failure is optional—it’s not. Learn to see your mistakes as stepping stones to success.
At some point, all successful leaders are tempted to believe they are failures. But in spite of that, they persevere. In the face of adversity, shortcomings, and rejection, they hold onto the belief that their dream is still worth pursuing. So much so that they refuse to see failure as fatal. Choosing instead to transform setbacks into comebacks; missteps into next steps; and mistakes into opportunities to start again, only better equipped for the journey ahead.
As John Maxwell reminds us, “the difference between average people and achieving people is their perception of and response to failure.” People who allow failure to define them are prone to make the same mistake over and over. Accept you will make mistakes, but don’t conclude that you’re a failure until you breathe your last breath. Until then, recognize you’re a work in progress and there is still time to turn things around for the better
So take my advice and fail early, fail often and fail forward. You’ll be a better leader and the world will be a better place for it.