Fail Safe


In what profession can you fail most of the time yet still be considered a success – and have employers chasing after you with multi-million dollar offers?!

In major league baseball, a .300 batting average is considered the gold standard – even though that means the player fails to get a base hit seven out of 10 times at bat. Granted, professional baseball is an anomaly; a comparable performance in the workplace likely will earn you a big, fat pink slip. But failure is not necessarily a dirty word. In fact, many of the greatest leaders in history celebrated failure, believing it is life’s most effective and empowering teacher.

“Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm,” said Winston Churchill, the former British prime minister.

Creative people often are their own harshest critics. Prior to a retrospective of her work at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Elizabeth Murray tossed one of her earlier paintings into the trash. Thanks to a neighbor who retrieved it, the piece was included in the display, though Murray regarded many of her 1970s paintings as failures.

In her 2014 TED talk, Embrace the Near Win, art critic Sarah Louis uses the Murray anecdote to illustrate the conflict inherent in creative quests. Though the dancer, writer and musician understand that perfection is unattainable, they doggedly pursue it and often are disappointed when they fall short. Yet what really matters most is their noble effort.

“I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games,” said former National Basketball Association great Michael Jordan, a six-time champion. “Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

Employees often are hesitant to take risks. They aren’t necessarily afraid of making mistakes, but worry about the repercussions. Errors aren’t easily tolerated in many organizations; they can lead to unfavorable evaluations …or worse. But progressive companies encourage creativity rather than condemn it. They recognize the correlation between innovation and success.

Eddie Obeng, founder of online business school Pentacle, says in his TED presentation, Smart Failure for a Fast Changing World, that businesses must embrace “smart failures,” mistakes employees make while forging new paths in unfamiliar terrain.

Said Albert Einstein: “A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new.”

In The Wisdom of Failure, authors Laurence G. Weinzimmer and Jim McConoughey explain that business leaders who do not fail are not taking enough risks, but those who do fail must learn from it and not repeat their mistakes.

“A common theme among industry’s greatest leaders: Their most important lessons have come from trial and error,” they write.

In the Ron Howard movie, “Apollo 13,” flight director Gene Kranz, played by Ed Harris, famously says, “Failure is not an option” as he tasks his people with finding a way to bring home three astronauts following a spaceship malfunction. Though Kranz never actually uttered those words in real life, the quote represents the attitude of the Mission Control personnel.

Fortunately, most of us do not face life-and-death situations at work. So try something new. Don’t be afraid. Swing for the fences. Make the most of your at-bats.

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