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SUCCESSFULLFAILURE (opening of Dutch Identity at de Paviljoens in Almere)

Successful Failure???

Creative Commons LicensePhoto credit: Paul Keller
Can failure be successful?

Every adversity, every failure, every heartache carries with it the seed on an equal or greater benefit.

— Napoleon Hill

If you think you’ve failed and give up, then you’ve probably judged the situation appropriately.  But if you think you’ve failed and you try again or look with new eyes, then perhaps you’ve successfully failed.  In an attempt to create glue that would never come unstuck, researchers developed an adhesive that was so “low-tack” it could actually be unstuck and re-stuck.  NOT what they were looking for.  Six years later, Art Fry looked at that “failure to stick” with new eyes:

The Post-it® Note was invented as a solution without a problem: Dr. Spencer Silver developed a unique, repositionable adhesive, but the 3M scientist didn’t know what to do with his discovery. Then, six years later, a colleague of Dr. Silver, Art Fry, remembered the light adhesive when he was daydreaming about a bookmark that would stay put in his church hymnal. The rest is history. Today Post-it® Brand boasts more than 4,000 unique products, and has become one of the most well-known and beloved brands in the world.

So, yes Virginia, there is such a thing as “successful failure”.

Why Write about Failure Now?

A recent headline caught my attention: Girls’ School Sponsors ‘Failure Week’.  And, having just returned from my own girls’ school reunion, I was intrigued: could a school actually be encouraging their students to fail?  Seemed quite contrary to me. The Wimbledon High School Newsletter explained:

The purpose of ‘Failure Week’ has been to encourage girls to take more risks in lessons and to try more things outside of their academic studies. E.g. asking that burning question even though you might feel stupid or putting your hand up to try and answer something even though you aren’t sure you’re right. In terms of extra-curricular activities they are encouraged to try new clubs and societies every lunchtime as well as using the Enrichment programme to broaden their horizons.

Through a positive atmosphere in the school and a conscious effort to encourage girls to try new things and not worry about getting things wrong, we hope to demystify the world ‘failure’ and to foster a more resilient student body.

— Dr Elyse Waites
Head of Year 7 & co-instigator of ‘Failure Week’

Ok.  That makes sense… encourage our youngin’s to risk feeling foolish.  Here’s what the girls said they learned:

  • You have to accept your failures. You can move on and they can even help you to success in the future.
  • Failure will happen – accept it.
  • You’re aiming for the top grades – it’s about knowing if you don’t get them that it’s not the end of the world.
  • If you fail first, but then succeed afterwards, the feeling is amazing.
  • We’ve had Respect Week and Courtesy Week. We could have called this ‘resilience week’ but I guess that wouldn’t be so appealing! Because it’s had the word ‘failure’ in, it’s had more impact with all of us.
  • We just lost in debating this week – we’ve been joking: is that what it’s about?
  • You feel a lot of pressure if others around you succeed all the time.
  • It’s good to think and talk about failure when you’re dealing with rejection from your choice of university.
  • I don’t mind failing at things I find difficult, but when I fail at stuff I know I can do, it affects me much more.

Still, There Is Risk and Then There’s RISK!

I do hope the school helped those girls to make distinctions about when risk taking is a good idea and when it’s not… for instance, I think it’s great to try new things, be creative and look with new eyes.  But I also think that there are categories where risk should be well thought out before taking a big leap.  For instance, if I were inclined to bungee jump, I sure would like to know that the sponsoring company used top notch equipment that was tripled checked between each jump!  I’d prefer that my manufactured goods had undergone a quality control check.  And I’d feel a lot more secure if my helpdesk professional wasn’t winging it… and unless I’ve got some rare, incurable disease, I’d just as soon not have a pharmacist improvising with my medications!  But for everyday stuff, for research and development, for learning new things, for satisfying your curiosity, for art and creative endeavors, hey – have at it! Try lots of new things, combinations, techniques…

Friending Failure

But how does one get “comfortable” with the idea risking failure? Marriage and family therapist, Bobbi Emel, suggests that we “friend failure” and she offers 4 Ways to do that – here are two:

Look for the side effects of failure.

When I was an undergraduate, I failed my statistics class. And then I failed it again. I passed it on the third try (and with a different professor) but my plans to become a mathematician were derailed. I was dejected. I had never failed at anything I set out to achieve… After awhile, though, I noticed something. Failing my statistics class forced me to look at other fields of study. And I realized that it was actually psychology that energized me, not math. The side effect of my failure was that I allowed myself to really look at what I was passionate about. …

Release control of your expectations.

One of the reasons we are so failure-aversive is that it feels as though we lose control when we fail at something. Letting go of your control and expectations about something will allow you to see the softer sides of failure. And, again, letting go does not mean giving up. It merely means to have no judgment about situations or yourself… We can learn a lot from failure. You never know, it just may end up being one of your best friends.

How would your life be different if you friended rather than feared failure?

Failure Is an Event, Never a Person

Motivational speaker, Tony Robbins, maintains that there are no failures, only results.  I’m not sure I completely agree – I believe there are both failures and successes; but sometimes we’re too quick to label the results we see in front of us as failure when what we really have are Post-it Note® moments awaiting discovery!

But Robbins does make an important distinction: it’s the results, the outcomes of our efforts that should be judged as successes or failures.

The first important step in weathering failure is learning not to personalize it — making sure you know that your failure does not make you a failure… For many people the pain of failure leads to fear of failure… That’s when many people get stuck in the fear cycle. And if fear overcomes you, it’s almost impossible to fail forward.

— John C. Maxwell
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It’s critical that we learn to make that distinction between the outcomes we’ve achieved and “who” we are becoming…

And it’s also critical that we don’t allow frustration to thwart our energy and commitment – many of us vector away from our endeavors too soon – we neglect our creative talents at the very moment when we need them the most.

People in their handlings of affairs often fail when they are about to succeed.

— Lao Tzu

Don’t give up too early.  Have patience: you might just be working with your very own Post-it® moment disguised as a failure!  Before you give up (sometimes the best path) look around and ask yourself some questions about the event you’ve labeled failure:

  • What was I trying to achieve?
  • What did I achieve?
  • How can I use what I’ve achieved?
  • What do I need to differently?
  • What’s the next step?
  • How will I know when to stop?

Renaissance genius, artist, and inventor Leonard da Vinci maintained that:

Art is never finished, only abandoned.

Perhaps the same can be said of all our endeavors.  Knowing when to stop is an art in itself… and there are many stopping points along the way – even Post-its® went through a six year incubation period!

So, can failure be successful? YES indeedy… now go get yourself some!

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