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ARE YOU FAILING FORWARD?

I dislike failing. Rather I hate it. Yet, we both know that wouldn’t be a very practical blog post. It also wouldn’t explain the necessity of failing in helping you and I to better COMMUNICATE, CONNECT and LEAD to great effect.


Photo by Debora Cardenas on Unsplash


Let’s start by defining failure as an “idea, concept or behaviour that is proven unsuccessful in bringing about a desired outcome”. My goal today is that you and I leave with an understanding of how failure can provide the necessary tools we need to succeed. And that you would decide to join me in riding it’s uncomfortable but life-changing wave.

Failing develops our character

Remember Abraham Lincoln?

  • Lost his job, 1832

  • Defeated for the legislature, 1832

  • Failed in business, 1833

  • Elected to the legislature, 1834

  • Sweetheart (Ann Rutledge) died, 1835

  • Had a nervous breakdown, 1836

  • Defeated for Speaker, 1838

  • Defeated for nomination for Congress, 1843

  • Elected to Congress, 1846

  • Lost renomination, 1848

  • Rejected for Land Officer, 1849

  • Defeated for Senate, 1854

  • Defeated for nomination for Vice-President, 1856

  • Again defeated for Senate, 1858

  • Elected President, 1860

Think about that list of “failures” for a moment. This very list of painful events would prove to be the very making of his character. In particular his humility. An ability that would change the way we see leadership not only under his presidency but to this very day! His many defeats to rivals taught him the value of humility. Considering others greater than himself regardless of how easy they were to work with. Upon taking office, Lincoln invited a man who craved his presidency with every fibre of his being. Salmon Chase. Crazy! Add into the mix that Chase was well known to be undermining Lincoln for self-gain. Why would he do that?

Well, Chase was excellent at what he did. In Chase, Lincoln knew that his policies and ideas would be challenged. The result? The best idea would win, not always Lincoln’s suggestions.

How can we apply this today? Think about a recent failure, how has that humbling experience changed your perspective? What one thing will you start doing next time a similar situation arises?

Failing develops our competence

Easy to preach right but hard to live?! When I look back at the bridges burned, ventures that crashed and projects that failed, I have noticed that my skills are always sharpened. Whether that’s in my ability to have that difficult conversation or ability to get things completed. I’m confident it is the same in your life. How can we apply our previous failings today?

You know that conversation you had, the presentation that flopped or the incorrect report? Think back and write down 3 things that you won’t repeat and file away. Next time you arrive in a similar situation return to your notes and apply the lessons. Attempt this today and be encouraged to know that you will be joining a club littered with the greatest names in history. All of whom failed many times but who’s ability to learn from their failures saw them change the course of history! PS. I’m rooting for you regardless!

Failing creates opportunities

In the 1970s a man by the name of Spencer Silver was on a quest to find a super-strong adhesive. Instead, his hard work brought him quite the opposite. A weak adhesive glue that seemed to have no valuable purpose. That was until Art Fry decided to use Silver’s weak glue to attach his bookmarks onto the pages of his hymn book where they had before fallen out from. The result? The Post-it note was born.

Think back to a recent failure. Can you think of a process/activity that may be able to help you in a different area of your work? E.g. Lets say you have had a failed youtube career. The opportunity could be the creation of a successful reporting system at work. For example “Milestone movies” helping to bring boring information to life.

Failing produces courage

Forgive me if you are not a person of faith but I have to share this amusing illustration that will help me bring this concept to life. Billy was a 4th generation pastor in a poor Tennessee neighbourhood. Throughout his life, hundreds of people in the community came to Billy to seek his advice after they had made poor financial and life decisions. Billy was a great listener and always loved his congregation. But the advice his congregation often received sent some away baffled. “Are you breathing”? He would ask. “If you’re breathing, it means you’re not dead and if you’re not dead, God’s not done with you yet”.

What’s the point? Well, many of our “failings” are painful for a time but almost all of them also carry an end date along with them. The discomfort and embarrassment at the time will subside. Taking its place will be a rooted confidence that will enable you and I to take a healthy level of risk next time round. Who knows the next time maybe the breakthrough we have been searching for!

Failing is the greatest teacher

Following an experiment conducted by Nate Kornell, a Cognitive Psychologist at Williams College. Participants were tested on their ability to retrieve pairs of words. Those who performed the best were the very same people who used practice tests and had failed to retrieve the correct answers. Why was this important? Their brains had become primed ahead of the next test to retrieve and retain the correct answer.

In other words, failing at a task/ goal will help you to move closer to succeeding in the future. Each failure we have will prime our brains and lock in the learning lesson. The retention rate of the learning experience will be higher than if the answer or clues were given to us the first time around. Powerful.



If you liked this article, please consider subscribing to The Development Community Leadership Podcast. It’s free! This is where I share unique stories bringing to life many of the key soft skills you and I need to develop to thrive professionally and personally! My dream is to see young people in organisations able to COMMUNICATE, CONNECT and LEAD to great effect!

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