Back in the day, when I still was working in corporate communications, I once came across something absolutely brilliant: Engineers Without Borders Canada’s annual Failure Report.
In a nutshell, program staff and volunteers would be encouraged to publicly celebrate their failures, as an opportunity to share the lessons learned through the process.
The feeling that I had while perusing its pages was absolutely incredible: it was liberating, audacious, honest, and most importantly appealed to the reader’s intelligence instead of trying to pull a fast one—unlike what I’d been accustomed to see, unfortunately, in my everyday job.
In the company where I’d been working for over a decade, failure was typically dealt with in one of two ways. The first one was pretty typical: if you weren’t in the management’s graces, you’d be promptly disposed of, and never to be spoken of again. If, on the other hand, you were part of a very golden circle of favourites, your failure would be promptly swept under the carpet, again never to be spoken of again.
No matter which scenario played out, lessons were never learned, failures were never to be addressed, and the same scenarios would play out time and time again, like a completely puzzling vicious cycle.
Seen from my perspective, it strongly evoked the common (and often attributed to Einstein) parable: insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
I’m not saying that failure ever feels particularly good. But if we keep treating it as something that is wholly undesirable, we will—unfailingly, and every time it occurs—refuse to look into it and reap the lessons it can yield.
I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.
Thomas A. Edison
REMOVING THE STIGMA
I think one of the most damaging slip-ups that happens it that we too often translate I have failed into I am a failure.
Failure then becomes this painful emotional assault that we’d rather obscure instead of simply being a situation outside ourselves that we can objectively investigate.
Yet, can you imagine all the rich goodness we could uncover if we took the time to dig in?
It’s messy work, undoubtedly, but so are many of life’s most worthwhile things anyway. From lifting PRs to birthing children, from running endurance events to mastering advanced cooking skills, from building solid relationships to creating art, we are aware that the process isn’t always pretty. But it’s so meaningful that we do it anyway.
The same should go with analyzing failure—not as a fatal end, but as a natural and expected part of a flourishing life. One that can yield some essential hints and answers that can help us go not only forward but further than ever before.
Failure gives us something absolutely amazing: opportunity to learn.
Why keep stigmatizing it, shying away from it, and trying to distance ourselves from it as soon as it occurs? I say we reverse this trend! Let’s give back failure the full respect that it deserves, so that we can all benefit from its teachings by sharing the rich knowledge that’s waiting for us to uncover!
Are you game?
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