In our success-orientated society, failure has become something of a dirty word.
Yet research from organisations, entrepreneurs, education and healthcare all tell a different story. We learn more from our failures than our successes.
Success does bring benefits, such as increasing motivation, satisfaction and confidence.
But it also has liabilities. These include complacency and a reduced motivation to adapt, change or pursue new approaches. Success feeds the belief that continuing to do the same things will lead to continued success.
For success-orientated organisations and individuals, failure is to be avoided. Unfortunately this often leads to long-term and catastrophic failure because of a lack of versatility, adaptability and resilience. Such individuals and organisations tend to fail badly, because they have not developed strategies to fail well.
In contrast, organisations and individuals that develop skills and systems to identify and learn from failure tend to be hugely successful in the long-term. This is because failure has helped them identify weaknesses and problems. Addressing these strengthens individuals and systems and leads to greater versatility, adaptability and resilience. When further failure comes, they are then able to fail well.
Growth and fixed mindset
The concept of growth mindset, pioneered by Carol Dweck and used extensively in education is a way of teaching students to use their failures as tools to improve.
Growth-mindset individuals see failure as an opportunity to learn and improve. In contrast, fixed-mindset individuals see failure as defining them, and therefore something to avoided.
Growth-mindset individuals tend to fail well because they take responsibility for failure. Therefore they learn and improve as a result. They seek feedback and are not afraid to take on challenging tasks because they are not afraid to try and fail.
Fixed-mindset individuals tend to fail badly. They blame others, refuse to accept responsibility and get defensive when given feedback. In short they learn little from failure.
A manual for failure
The Bible can be viewed as a manual on managing failure. After all, God’s Plan A for the world fails in Genesis chapter 3. The rest of the Bible is about managing this failure.
Many of the Biblical heroes go through significant failure. Yet we see time and again that God is able to use people, not just despite their failures, but often because of them. Their failure gives them a reliance on God and a sense of their own vulnerability, which is crucial to the role God wants them to play.
The story of Moses is an example. He flees Egypt after murdering an Egyptian, and then struggles with his own sense of unworthiness and vulnerability. God is able to use him, not because he is strong and successful, but because he is weak and failing. The same is true of Gideon, Isaiah and Jeremiah who all struggle with a sense of inadequacy.
Think also of the time of Jesus at the crucifixion. He was crucified along with two criminals, one on his left and the other on his right. Both criminals have failed and are paying the price for their wrong-doing. Both talk with Jesus but with very different outcomes. One criminal continues to fail badly but the other learns from what has happened. He fails well.
The Apostle Paul, so often beaten up, imprisoned and rejected, puts it like this in 2 Corinthians 12:9-10:
‘Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.’
How to fail well
Research has gone into those who have gone through catastrophic failure, such as feeling responsible for the potentially avoidable death of a patient in healthcare. It shows that there are some fundamental ingredients that help individuals and organisations to fail well.
The most important of these is the response to the failure by the organisation. Cultures of blame are highly counterproductive – they increase the likelihood of failing badly. They impede learning by both the individual and the organisation.
In contrast, a culture of support and accountability is crucial. This both helps manage the emotional fall out, and supports structured and honest learning. Learning to fail well is one of the most important ingredients for long term success.
Caris Grimes is a Surgeon for the NHS and is the author of ‘Failing Intelligently. Facing and learning from the impact of failure’. Follow her on twitter @carisgrimes