Learning to Fail: Turning mistakes into success

It’s that time of year again – where anticipation runs high and dreams are either realised or shattered. What am I talking about – the Olympic Games in Rio? Winning medals or crashing out? Quite literally in the case of the cycling events! No I am talking about something much, much closer to home – the impending A-level results.

As the date looms on an ever-nearing horizon, my thoughts turn to “what if?” What if next week the UCAS tracker gives my daughter the result she desires? Or what if her results are not as good as expected and I have to help her manage what will be a crushing disappointment? I have thought carefully about this and whilst wine is a temporary solution to both scenarios, “failing” to get to University may not be the tragedy that daughter is imagining at the moment.

Learning to fail and learning from failure are important parts of a growth mind-set. Never failing means never progressing; the willingness to open up oneself to failure means that we stretch outside of our comfort zone and limitations to progress towards new and better skills and abilities. To quote JK Rowling;

“It is impossible to live without failing at something,
unless you live so cautiously, that you might as well not have lived at all;
in which case, you’ve failed by default.”

So often we are scared of using the word FAILURE, that we miss the point that SUCCESS is born out of it.  If we can’t admit a mistake, then the likelihood is we will keep on making them.  Matthew Syed in his book “Black Box Thinking” examines how we develop psychological strategies to avoid admitting fault and how we could all do well to learn from the aviation sector.  Aviation is one of the safest forms of travel; last year there was one crash for every 8.3 million take offs!  Why is the figure so low?  Mainly because of the ‘Black Box” which after any accident is analysed and the findings immediately incorporated into new technology and procedures.  I now completely understand why, when on a flight back from Mexico many years ago we were delayed in Florida en-route for London when a fault was discovered with the Black Box.  If there was no way of finding a potential mistake, there was no way the authorities were allowing us to fly.  I for one feel very comforted that the aviation sector is bold enough to say “yes we made a mistake”, hold up their hands and admit it rather than spending wasted time and money covering their proverbial rear end!

Often individuals, teams, organisations spend far too much time justifying their actions when things go wrong rather than admitting mistakes happen and examining what can be learned for next time.  If we look to the sporting world there are many stories about athletes not getting it right first time but investing time and effort looking at what wasn’t working in order to hit upon the magic that is getting it right at the right time. Adam Peaty being a timely case in point, working on his dive over and over again to give him the advantage we saw him demonstrate in this week’s gold medal winning performance.

As Leaders we need to encourage and cultivate an environment at work where we give permission for our people to learn though making mistakes. I am not talking here about taking huge risks but delegating effectively rather than worrying that the job won’t be done as well as we could do it.  We need to invest our time in developing others and give them freedom to try out new approaches that may be different to our tried and tested ways – after all isn’t being thrown in the deep end and making mistakes how we all learned at some point. Indeed, some of the best inventions have come from “not getting it right” – Dyson vacuum cleaners being just one example.

So, what advice will I pass onto my daughter next week? Whatever the outcome we will celebrate in some way; if the results are what she wants, then fantastic, if not I will be a shoulder to cry on, then encourage her to think about “what else?”  It will be time to seek out other opportunities that could be as good and maybe even better than the traditional path to University; after all there are plenty of examples of people who didn’t go to University and became a great success. Failing is not a dirty word, not learning from it definitely is!!!!


P.S. Good luck to all other A-level, AS level and GCSE students waiting for their results… good things will come, no matter what!

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