I admit it. I’ve failed…a lot. I’ve made bad decisions. I’ve tried things that didn’t work out as planned. I’ve watched my efforts result in nothing. If you think I’m crazy to publicly relate this information to you, you’re not alone. A quick Google search of the word “success” yields twice the results (almost a billion) as does the term “failure”. And most of the top hits for failure are concerned with trying to avoid it at all cost. Clearly, we humans are not big fans of this F-word.
I guess that shouldn’t surprise me. Failing at something is a big hit to the ego and that never feels good. Add the possible repercussions attached to that failure, and it’s no wonder the word has a bad rap. We tend to avoid talking about our failures; we hide them or deny them outright. But what good does that do us?
Perhaps before I answer my own question we should take a look at failure’s overachieving cousin, success. Success feels great! We want to shout it from the rooftops. We want to wrap ourselves in it like a warm blanket and never leave. And that’s the big problem with success; once we’ve succeeded, it’s not always easy to know what comes next. In fact, some of us rest on past laurels for so long we stop trying altogether (Tom Cruise, I’m looking at you).
Success can also lead to unrealistic expectations from those around us, and even ourselves. People who succeed early can become paralyzed by the fear of failure, resulting in countless examples of “one-hit wonders,” people who wowed us early on and then couldn’t or wouldn’t follow up. (Will Psy ever top his über-hit “Gangnam Style”?)
As social entrepreneurs, we might as well get comfortable with failure since the failure rate for start-ups is anywhere from 30-95%, depending on how you define it. Yep, you read that last number correctly. And that’s data from Harvard Business School. So don’t fear failure, embrace it!
5 reasons to embrace failure
1. You’ll discover where your strengths and weaknesses lie, where the flaws exist in your plan, and what you can improve upon next time. As Henry Ford said, “Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.”
2. Failure gives you perspective and helps focus your efforts. If every effort results in success, it begins to lose its meaning and impact. Put more eloquently, “Failure is the condiment that gives success its flavour.” (Truman Capote) It keeps us motivated and driven.
3. It builds character. Yes, that sounds like something your grandfather might say, but he’s right. Learning to roll with the punches, get back on that horse, [insert next cliché here] is what makes us who we are. And if we’re learning from our failures – see #1 above – then we’re likely becoming better at whatever it is we are trying to do. As social entrepreneurs, we’re all trying to make the world a bit better in our own way. Each time we learn from a failure and choose to keep going, we are getting closer to that end goal.
4. Failure can lead to new opportunities you otherwise might never have discovered. This goes along with the proverbial, “When one door closes, another one opens.” If you don’t believe me, ask the guys who accidentally invented penicillin, Post-It Notes, and plastic.
5. Failure = Freedom. Once you embrace failure and all that it has to offer (see above), the pressure to constantly succeed will fade. You’ll feel free to try new things, to experiment, to change direction if necessary. Sure, your ultimate goal is still to succeed, but without the fear of failure looming large, you’ll be a lot better equipped to handle the bumps along the way.
Failure doesn’t have to be a bad word. It’s what gets us to success. If we can begin to feel more comfortable with our failures, and more comfortable talking about them, we’ll have the opportunity to learn more about what works and what doesn’t, and what will get us to our ultimate goals even faster. And since we are all trying to make the world a better place, I can’t think of a better reason to start embracing – and talking about – failure as soon as possible.
That’s why we are publishing our exclusive Failure Report in the weeks ahead. In it you will hear firsthand from social entrepreneurs who have tried and failed, and tried again, and what they learned along the way. To make sure you receive your copy of the report, be sure to add your name to our subscriber list.
Nicole Zummach is the co-founder of SEE Change Magazine. She has worked in the publishing industry for more than two decades, and has spent most of her career researching and writing about civil society and the nonprofit sector. Contact her at email@example.com.