Thomas Edison, Charles Darwin, Steve Jobs… humanity has seen quite a few failures over the years. But history doesn’t remember them for their missteps – it’s for what they accomplished in spite of all else. Beyond impressive inventions and firsts of their kind, people appreciate other people who show them what’s possible with the right mindset.
Amy Edmondson, Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School, has been studying the science behind this for years. We recently sat down to discuss her research and why she believes talking about failure is the key to success.
Understanding the Different Facets of Failure
Amy’s research categorizes failure into three distinct archetypes:
- Basic Failure: This stems from neglecting fundamental principles crucial for success. It’s like skipping essential steps in a process, hoping for a favorable outcome.
- Complex Failure: External factors, often beyond our control, cause this type of failure. While some aspects can be anticipated and mitigated, others remain unpredictable.
- Intelligent Failure: This is where the gold lies. It’s about viewing setbacks as learning opportunities. With this perspective, failures become stepping stones, guiding us closer to solutions that work.
Amy’s mantra? Embrace failure. It’s the secret sauce to innovation and growth.
The Power of Perspective: Viewing Failure as a Discovery
Embracing failure can be incredibly hard at first, especially for the perfectionists among us who find the idea of making mistakes difficult to swallow. The toxic voice in our head may only see things in a two-dimensional way with a black and white criteria of success. But what about opportunities disguised as mistakes? Turning back the clock, the world has countless examples of mixups that turned out to be the next best or even better thing.
Take the invention of Post-It notes for instance. After years of trying to produce a strong adhesive, a chemist at 3M accidentally created an incredibly weak adhesive that was so light it could be easily removed from surfaces without damaging them. While this mistake initially caused the project to be shelved, the chemist’s boss realized the potential of this new adhesive and decided to pursue it further.
The fact of the matter is that we can’t see it all. We don’t always know where our mistakes will lead us to, and if we let the fear associated with them prevent us from even trying, it could potentially mean missing out on something amazing.
The Mindset Needed to Keep Going Despite Failures
With the importance of the above message being stated, it’s also worth recognizing how “Never give up!” and “Hang in there!” can become empty phrases.
No one in their right mind wants to fail, after all. Even with an intention of pursuing intelligent failure, mustering up the will to keep going after multiple blows is easier said than done.
That’s why Amy places an equal emphasis on the value of mindset. It may not seem like it, but the self-talk we have and the way we think about ourselves can make all the difference.
Instead of beating yourself up for not being perfect on your first go, be compassionate with yourself. Acknowledge that you are learning a new skill; it’s only natural that it will take time to master.
Remind yourself of your successes, and the value you have already brought to the table with regards to what you’ve already achieved in life. And let go of comparison – although we’re often tempted to compare ourselves to those who seem further along than us, it’s important to note that you have no idea of the roads they have taken or what has led them up till this point.
That, paired along with good-old self-discipline and hard work can help you continue to push forward and see those wins that you desire.
Embracing the Right Kind of Wrong
To sum up Amy Edmondson’s insightful advice for creators, intelligent failures are right kind of wrong. You may be used to grading the value of your work by an old set of rules, but these rules are no longer valid.
What matters now is self-compassion and the willingness to be open to learning something new. By embracing failure as a necessary step in growth, you’ll increase your chances of success amidst these ever-changing times.
I recommend checking out the ‘Right Kind of Wrong: The Science of Failing Well’ for more thoughtful advice from this expert on all things failure and success.