Mistakes and failures:

Why would we want them?

by Sara Ais.

I have lost count of how many times I have read over the course of my professional life about the importance of failures and mistakes for our learning and growing. I have even lost count of how many times I have read about it in the past few months. And to be honest, who likes making mistakes? Who likes failing? Do you? Because I don’t.

Intellectually, I can understand the notion of making mistakes to learn, of trying and trying again after failure, and I have embraced wholeheartedly the concept of resilience (bounce back from difficulties or failure). But emotionally, how can someone understand and accept that failing is good for you? After all, are we not human beings who want to save face, who want to give a good impression of ourselves? Are we not looking to be accepted and appreciated by others, especially those who matter most to us? Doesn’t failure raise unpleasant, negative and self-critical thoughts and feelings? Is then failing and making mistakes fundamentally the contrary of what we need as human beings?

I’ve been reflecting and reframing my previous thoughts on the topic in these past months and here is some of what I have learned.

“Failure is part of the process of success. People who avoid failure also avoid success.”  Robert T. Kiyosaki

We might be so afraid of making mistakes, so afraid of failing, that we may not even try. And if we don’t try, we may never experience success. It is just the thought of potentially failing that may limit us to even try. It is the fear of failure that gets in the way to success. It is the thought of potentially failing that keeps some people from taking the step forward they need to make in pursue of their dreams and aspirations.

Not fearing failure doesn’t mean that you can make crazy decisions or not calculate your risks. You probably want to create situations where you have high possibilities to succeed, but knowing that if you fail, you can always learn and try again, take a different course of action, experiment, make a different choice…

“Failure is not the opposite of success, it’s part of it” Arianna Huffington

Failure it is not an event, it occurs over time. Failure is made of errors and mistakes repeated. Mistakes may lead to failure, but if you fix them you can be on the way to success. Therefore, being aware of the mistakes we make by facing them early enough (fail fast), not hiding them but doing something about them, will provide a better chance to succeed. When we focus on fixing our mistakes, when we see them as an opportunity to learn, we are much more likely to avoid failure over the longer term. Mistakes can be our friends, not our enemies.

“Success is not final; failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” – Winston Churchill

Failure doesn’t come without pain. But often the pain we experience comes from our own self-critical inner voice, from our own negative or irrational interpretation of things. We need to develop realistic, and balanced thoughts about failure. We need to shift or reframe our mindsets to see failure as a step in the journey to achievement, and eventually to success. We need to accept our responsibility in the events that led to that failure, reflect on how things developed, turn to trusted ones for support and perspective, mourn, forgive ourselves, and move on (don’t sit there dwelling in that pain).

“The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.” – Henry Ford

Mistakes and failures can lead to success…. or not. Mistakes and failures can lead to success… but not always and not for everybody. How is that? Failures or mistakes do not lead to success. It is what we do with them, it is the after-the-fact reflection, that does.

Years ago, CCL (Center for Creative Leadership) conducted a research titled “Lessons from Experience”. Thousands of executives were asked about difficult experiences (failures, losses, etc.) in their lives and what they learnt from them. Some of the conclusions were that some people going through those difficult experiences learnt lessons for life and some people didn’t learn anything, even if they went through a similar experience. If learnt anything, similar experiences led to similar learnings.

It all has to do with whether we take the time and the opportunity to reflect and extract the lessons from the situation, internalize that learning and then apply it to the next similar situation. Today, we call this learning agility: the willingness to learn from experience and then apply that learning to perform successfully in new situations.

I have made many mistakes. I have failed in many areas a few more times that I would have liked over the course of my life. Now I know that those failures, while they were painful at the time, were the building blocks of what I consider success today (achievement, accomplishment). I have made many mistakes… and I am proud that I did not give up: I failed, and I got up again.

I will continue to learn as long as I continue to try, as I continue to make mistakes and resist failure. Because if you want the right to succeed, you need to give yourself permission to fail.

Sara Ais