Learning From Mistakes and Failures

“Failure is not an option.”  is a line from Apollo 13.  For the crew of Apollo 13 therewas a serious problem that had to be fixed – it was a life or death matter.

Today we use that line to stop us from doing anything that we think we cannot execute perfectly. It’s a saying that can paralyze us.

On the other hand we learn so much from failure.  Why do we discourage it? As Thomas Alva Edison said: “Results! Why, man, I have gotten a lot of results. I know several thousand things that won’t work.”

Trial and error is a time-honored method of learning.  In our world today we have so many people telling us that we must hurry or we will be left behind.

We know we must encourage a learning organization.     Learners are not as yet experts. They make mistakes.  Work will probably have to be redone and that will mean delays.  Can a company move forward quickly and still allow for learning?

Today I was talking with someone who had a business of her own.  When the economy took a downturn so did her business.  Several years later a newspaper reporter had written an article about her with the headline “Woman turns failure into success.”

She told me she did not think of what had happened to her as a “failure”.  Instead she saw it as a series of challenges that helped her to learn and grow.

What a wonderful example of working and learning without being too attached to the outcome!  I am a big believer in setting goals and/or writing business plans.  When we implement the plan  if the result is not what was expected, then either we go back and change what we are doing or we see if the new result takes us to places we had not thought of before but that are even more attractive.  In either case, it is learning and growing – not failure.

A client of mine was trying to jump start a consulting business.  When we brainstormed all the ways to get new clients, the one that he placed as his highest priority was cold calling potential clients.  Each week he set a goal for himself to call a certain number of people.

After several weeks of angst and making only a few calls, he learned that he was much more comfortable and successful calling people he had met in his networking than cold calling people he did not know.  Instead of calling him a failure at cold calling I would say he learned to use his own particular strengths to build a rapport with potential clients.

Wayne Dyer in his book, Wisdom of the Ages, says, “You cannot fail, you can only produce results.”  What is important is what you do with the results.  Failure is a judgment about the action.  That judgment paralyzes people and keeps them from trying again.

Do you view your own life in terms of success or failure?  Try this exercise that Ellen Goodman described in an article in the Boston Globe:

“Anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson gives adults an exercise I often think of at this time of year.  She asks us to compose two narratives of our life history.  Narrative One? ‘Everything I have ever done has been heading me to where I am today.’ Narrative Two? ‘It’s only after many surprises and choices, interruptions and disappointments that I have arrived somewhere I could never have anticipated.’  The story of life can read both ways.

The only way to move forward in our lives is to take action.  Some actions will result in what we expected and others will not.  In the next month take action. Try something that you have been putting off. Get someone to support you, your spouse, a friend, a family member, or a coach. What are the results?  Are you surprised?  Will you try again?  What’s next?  What did you learn?


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