T. Kearny Vertner, III
Failure is critical to learning. Why do so many of us get this one wrong?
I have failed. I cannot even begin to count all of the times I have failed. Some of them haunt me while others give me a chuckle. I can see each of these failures as one of two ways: I can either see it as something ruminate over or something I can learn from. We all find ourselves ruminating, replaying the same ideas and images repeatedly, asking ourselves why we did what we did and what we could have done differently. It's an entirely self-destructive process because we can't change anything about what happened, only what we do next. That's why challenging ourselves to learn is so vital.
I've worked in aviation for some time, and one of my favorite parts is the debrief. During the debrief, the aircrew goes into a room, closes the door, and provides direct, unvarnished feedback. Every element is open for scrutiny, and sometimes the feedback can feel both relentless and merciless if you had particularly poor performance. Sometimes you catch spears (to the face) and other times you're delivering them. Despite what it sounds like, the focus is not on how poorly (or well) you performed on the last flight, but how you will learn from this for the next one. Even on a sortie where everything seemed perfect, there's space for improvement, and the debrief will often catch it.
This is the essence of how we should handle failure. We always learn more from failures than we do from our successes. The best training and education is all about safely giving students enough room to fail. Indeed, some schools and courses even go so far as to induce failure intentionally. As long as the student is receptive to constructive feedback, and the instructor is continuously giving it, failing at a task is an incredible learning opportunity. The aircrew debrief is also an example of how to build up failure and feedback as a reflex, making seeking failure less daunting.
A willingness to seek failure is incredibly essential when acquiring new skills. With wildly rare exceptions, nobody picks up a skill and shows mastery right away. While basketball player LeBron James may be lauded as one of the most outstanding players of all time, he didn't start that way. In the process, he missed a lot of shots and lost a lot of games. In fact, despite his overwhelming talent, he continues to miss shots and lose games. Like any professional, he watches recordings of his performance, talks to his coach and teammates, and continues to practice. In other words, he started playing basketball by failing, he has failed repeatedly since, and will continue to fail for the rest of his career. Mr. James' willingness to seek out and wrestle with failure is what makes him so dominant. If all of that failure is good enough for him, why are you so afraid to try ballroom dancing or to paint a picture?
If you're afraid to fail or be judged negatively for your failure, new skills can be terrifying. This fear can stop each of us from achieving so much. This is the fear that prevents us from switching careers, chasing dreams, creating art, or picking up new hobbies. This fear is why you don't buy a thriftshop guitar and try to learn like you always told yourself. This fear is why you never left your home town to travel and see what the rest of the world holds for you. Being willing to fail isn't a sign of weakness but strength. Trying frightening new things will test your resiliency when you fall short, but it will send it to soaring new heights when you succeed despite your expectations.
Time to Rethink
The importance of seeking failure is why we need to redefine it and approach it or encourage others to approach it. One of my core principles is: "I'd rather do the right thing the wrong way than do the wrong thing the right way." Implicit in this statement is that I hope to do the right thing the right way eventually, but it's unlikely that I'll get there unless I've gotten it wrong a few times.
As a leader, fostering an environment where failure can be acceptable is important to pushing your organization further. Reducing the shame of failure and embracing it opens up the opportunity for feedback, innovation, and growth. The shame will be the hardest one to overcome, and it starts by being vulnerable yourself and admitting to your teammates when you have failed and what you learned from it. Demonstrate to them how a willingness to failure has made you stronger, more skilled, and more daring. Show how important that is to the growth of both them and your organization. Redefine failure as an opportunity, not as a loss.
The debrief process can be a powerful one. At the risk of sounding too self-referential, you need to capture your lessons learned. More importantly, you need to be willing to share those lessons with others who can benefit. Part of the point of this blog is to share what I've learned and continue to get feedback.
Most of us were brought up to think of failure as a negative to be hidden out of shame. The truth is, failure is what made us who we are. It's how we learn and grow both new talents and old skills. The best in their profession aren't naturally that way; they become the best in part because of a constant willingness to fail. As long as you follow it up with a debrief - taking and receiving feedback - and sharing what you've learned with others, you can create a cycle of endless failure that results in a shocking amount of success! Fearlessly fail forward!