How to Use Failure
Seeing as I’ve been absent from this space for while now — and I’ll be writing more often now that the new book is mostly done — I thought it might be good to write about failure. Beginning with a question:
What happens when we fail really badly at something?
I’m not talking about almost-success or near misses. I’m talking about spectacular screwups, missed-by-a-country-mile kind of failures, when we fall flat on our face.
Most of us have the same reaction. We wince. We close our eyes. We slowly look to see if anybody noticed us. Then we ignore it, or, better, pretend it didn’t happen. It’s basically a full-brain allergic response — minimize it, keep quiet, and move on — and it makes perfect psychological sense.
But there’s an opportunity in this moment that is sometimes overlooked. Because when failure is shared, something special happens.
Check out this clip of Ed Sheeran, superstar of global pop, playing a recording of his teenage self. Spoiler: he’s really bad (fast forward to the 50-second mark if you dare). Sheeran can’t hit the notes. It sounds like yodeling, or someone falling down the stairs.
Or check out the remarkable CV of Johannes Haushofer, an assistant professor of psychology at Princeton. It’s like any other CV, except for one thing: Haushofer lists everything he failed at: the programs he failed to get into, the awards and funding he failed to receive. As he writes,
Most of what I try fails, but these failures are often invisible, while the successes are visible. I have noticed that this sometimes gives others the impression that most things work out for me. As a result, they are more likely to attribute their own failures to themselves, rather than the fact that the world is stochastic, applications are crapshoots, and selection committees and referees have bad days. This CV of Failures is an attempt to balance the record and provide some perspective.
The engineers at Etsy do the same every week in the form of a company-wide email openly confessing their biggest mistakes.
Each of these methods is effective because it taps into the same power. Making failure visible sets off a chain reaction with two benefits: 1) you create emotional connection and motivation; 2) you provide knowledge that helps others avoid the same mistakes. Failure isn’t something to be hidden, but a valuable resource to be exploited, a tool that helps a group become smarter and more connected.
Which leads to another question: what’s the best way to do this? Here are a few ideas:
- Have leaders model vulnerability. When the most powerful people in a group are open about failure, they give permission for everyone else to do the same.
- Set expectations early on. The first big failure is the opportunity to establish the norm for group behavior around failures. If the first failure is shared, the others become easier to share.
- Build group habits of failure-sharing. A lot of highly successful groups have regular circle-ups where they shine light on their screwups, hold each other accountable, and make plans for improvement. This isn’t a coincidence. It’s a necessity when it comes to building a group brain.
I’d be curious if you had any other ideas for doing this; if you do, please feel free to share them below.