By | Published On: June 29, 2017 |

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

What’s the Problem?

People always say, “the best way to learn is through the mistakes that you make.”  But what if we don’t learn from our mistakes, our misdemeanours, our failures?  What if instead of learning from them they weigh heavily on our shoulders and we struggle to move past our failures and celebrate our successes?  It seems that failure tends to be more public than success. Society tends to celebrate the successes rather than highlighting the epic journeys towards success that are filled with trials, tribulations, upsets, setbacks, and inevitably some failure. It’s not as glamorous to talk about those things. We fret over it, we try to avoid it, and we question ourselves every time we have unconventional ideas. But the simple truth is – no great success was ever achieved without failure; It took James Dyson not just 15 years, but 5,127 attempts to invent a bagless vacuum cleaner, his story epitomizes how real innovation requires setbacks and seldom takes hold overnight.  Whether we like it or not, failure is a necessary stepping stone to achieving our dreams.

The other thing to remember, is that failure is supposed to teach us great lessons and to aid us in not making the same mistakes over and over again. But if that’s true, why do so many of us fail to learn from our mistakes, why do we just keep on failing?  Could it be that the problem is, whilst failures can present us with a learning opportunity, it will always be a difficult one? Figuring out the lesson to learn from our failures and mistakes is no easy undertaking, especially when it’s likely that when presented with this opportunity we’ll be nursing a bruised ego and feeling the negative emotions associated with frustration and disappointment. That’s quite a big undertaking and, at times, can make us feel embarrassed or we lose hope.

To be able to truly learn from our failures, we need to be able to decode the learning opportunities hidden away within them. We need a method for deducing what exactly those lessons are and how they can improve our chances of future success.  It would be a mistake to think that learning from our mistakes is straightforward; most deem failure to be a bad thing when actually in reality, especially in the business world, failure is sometimes inevitable and sometimes a good thing.  The attitude required to effectively analyse failures seem to be in short supply, and over and over the ‘blame game’ seems to get in the way of anything being learned from them.

What is the ‘Blame Game?’

Failure and fault are virtually inseparable in some households, and businesses. At a young age, children learn that admitting failure means taking the blame and will therefore often go through childhood avoiding admitting fault or failure to escape the consequences associated with taking the blame.  This learnt way of thinking may be why so many businesses are not able to reap the rewards of their employees learning from their mistakes. That may be because it’s easier to blame people than it is to alter a process. So, if people aren’t blamed for failures, what will ensure that they try as hard as possible to do their best work?

Mistakes teach us to take responsibility. Sometimes our instinctive reaction to a mistake is to shift blame elsewhere: “It’s not my fault,” “you never told me about that,” or the classic “I don’t see how this has anything to do with me.” It is more empowering to look for our role in the mistake, although taking responsibility for a failure may not be fun, but the act of doing so points out what we can do differently next time

It’s ok to fail

From my own personal experience supporting children in their learning at primary school, I believe that it is important for children to see that their teachers and teaching staff are still learning and can make fail and make mistakes too.  I believe it means that children will be more willing to make mistakes of their own and better able to

manage the feelings associated with failure when they can see that adults don’t always get it right either.  It is fundamental in a learning environment that children feel confident enough to participate even if they are not always succeeding. Children learn at their best when they are motivated and when they are in a situation where they feel it is safe to fail.

I believe the same can be said for adults in a business working environment; a culture that makes it safe to admit and report on failure can – and in some business contexts must – coexist with high standards for performance.  Although failure can symbolize pain and other unwanted negative feelings, we may be better to realize that it’s okay to fail. When we realize the importance that failure has played in the lives of the most successful people, it’s far easier to reach this understanding.  Recovering from failure becomes far more effortless with the knowledge and experience of previous failures under our belt, and there’s simply no way forward in life without failure. 

“Success is not final; failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” – Winston Churchill

Athletes learn from the mistakes they make, effortlessly accepting it and then pushing hard to improve – their time, their speed or their tactics, but that’s because they expect to learn this way. In contrast in business we seem to hate being told to learn from our failures and take it much more personally that we have done so but why?

Learn a lesson

Failure can be a great a platform for growth.  Remember what you failed at and why you failed.  What could you have done differently?  How will you tackle those failures in the future when you’re faced with them? How will you learn from the past to help shape a bigger and brighter future?  Failure isn’t the end of the road as long as you don’t give up. If you still believe in your goals, you can use the failure as leverage to push past the old limitations of your past.  Take your goals and lay out a plan as to how you’re going to achieve them. What will you do in the face of failure next time? Mistakes teach us, through analysis and feedback, about what works, and what doesn’t. It’s a reality check if applied objectively. When we experience the consequences of mistakes, we get a clear message about which of our efforts are working – and which are not. Marketing campaigns learn to do this as advertising tells them what we buy and what we don’t buy but they don’t learn that failure is defeat so let’s not try again!

Allow others to learn from your mistakes

Mistakes allow us to inspire others. They may be inspired when we are courageous and make our private struggles public.  As parents, we can teach our children that it is ok to fail because we are willing to let them see our failures and mistakes. This gives us opportunities to talk through what we could or would have done differently. These are powerful lessons for those around us.  What we teach our children in childhood they will hopefully take with them on their journey into adulthood building their resilience towards dealing with and learning from failure in later life.

It is natural to want to cover up our mistakes or to be embarrassed by them.  But being honest about our failures offer us opportunities to practice telling the truth. Admitting the truth about our mistakes to others, to let them really see us, allows us to let go of the embarrassment, disappointment, and blame we may feel so that we can concentrate on learning and growing.

In conclusion:

When we fail, we learn. We grow and mature, achieving new understandings and perspectives on life, love, business, money, relationships, and people. We’re forced to make new connections, bridge gaps where we hadn’t previously connected the dots.  It is essential to create and reinforce an environment that counteracts the blame game and makes people feel both comfortable with, and responsible for, growing and learning from failures.  Once a failure has been detected, it’s essential to go beyond the obvious and superficial reasons for it to understand the root causes.  To analyse failure ensures that the right lessons are learned and the right remedies are employed, it is crucial to not just move on after a failure but instead to stop, dig in and discover the wisdom contained in it.

This is true in our relationships too, otherwise we may find it difficult to discover what we really need as opposed to what we assume we want in life. Introspection has its place even if only for a day or two – that way we create an environment in which we learn

“The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.” – Henry Ford

“It is not the failure that matters, so much as what we learn and what we do about it next” – Sue Firth

By Georgina Yates