The Seven Stages of Failure

Thomas Edison once said, "I don't fail. I have just figured out 1000 ways it didn't work."

There's so much truth to that statement, but most of us become blindsided by that word we fear most: Failure.

The 'F' word. Really it's just a bunch of 's' words. Scary. Shameful. Sh**ty.

When failure happens, it can get under our skin like an old boyfriend or girlfriend. And we can't seem to shake them off. Too often we let it become a constant reminder that we aren't good enough or perhaps we never were?

Yet if we open up the failure and examine it, there is a profound lesson to learn. And it's often not the one we thought. I've found this comes as a huge gift. We need to look for it.

A couple of professors at the University of California Berkeley (and yes, one of them moonlights at Princeton), John Danner and Mark Coopersmith, interviewed an impressive group of highly successful people about failure and incorporated their insights into a new book, "The Other 'F' Word: How Smart Leaders, Teams and Entrepreneurs Put Failure to Work." They spoke with executives we have all heard of, entrepreneurs who invented products we covet and other cool folks.

Each person reflected on a time they failed, how they dealt with it and most importantly, what in the world they learned from it. And interestingly enough, a lot of important and soulful stuff emerges. They remind us that failure is a necessary part of discovery and can lead to success, not its opposite. But it is how we understand and respond to failure that dictates whether it becomes a career stopper or a pathway to huge opportunity.

Mostly as parents we focus on improving our kids' self-esteem by asking "what did you excel at today?" But this was not the case for Spanx billionaire, Sara Blakely. She was raised assessing her failure early on because her father made it a point to ask: "What did you fail at today?" Sara's father makes us think about whether we should hone our kids' and employees' grit and determination by focusing on the lessons learned from the small daily failures.

There is much I liked about this book, a big takeaway was how well it deconstructed failure in a systematic way. It reminds us to 'respect the gravity of failure' so we take it seriously. Danner and Coopersmith identify the seven stages of failure and provide excellent advice.

Respect - the gravity of failure in an inevitably fallible organization 
Rehearse - protocols you will use for handling a range of failures
Recognize - signals of failure to buy time to minimize long term impacts
React - effectively to failure
Reflect - thoughtfully, quickly, thoroughly to reasons for the failure
Rebound - to after effects and incorporate the lessons learned
Remember - to embed your experience and make sure it is in the cultural memory of the organization

This book is a great practical guide for personal and professional innovation and growth. It can help us all gain more skills and the confidence to just go for it.

As they say, why waste a good failure.

Dust ourselves off and learn to fail forward. That is what Danner and Coopersmith help us do in their new book.

Unpacking Failure

When I used to work in D.C., I was struck by how paralyzed people are about failing. While failing may prevent you from getting hauled up in front of Congress (maybe), it can also shun away innovation - the search for faster, cheaper, more effective ways of doing things. And it got me thinking about the fear and failure in all of our lives. If we unpack failure, we find the things we should be paying attention to, but more importantly, we discover the plethora of junk holding us back - most of which we should discard.

I thought about one of my biggest failures. Here's the story.

I couldn't do it.

I couldn't do the simple task of taking off my two-inch heeled sandals that I had worn while driving to the mountain parking lot. I needed to change into my hiking boots. It was the only thing holding me back from starting the climb - one I had already done many times. Geeze. I had always done it before happily, rapidly and with joyful anticipation.

It should have been a no brainier that day.

I thought this is ridiculous. It is a beautiful day without any ominous signs hovering overhead. Not like the day five weeks ago when I had started these weekly solo training hikes on Mt. Rainier. That day I had gone to the ranger's office to discover it unexpectedly closed. A sign hastily posted on the door said they were on a mountain rescue. Hearing the whooshing sound of rotary blades in the distance, I saw a Blackhawk helicopter en route as well. If I didn't appreciate the danger I was embarked on, this was a big reminder.

I had commenced this crazy journey after my dot com company had gone from boom to bust. I thought maybe if I set out to take on a big physical challenge I would be willing to overcome my professional defeat and start fresh, with a new perspective.

I never could get those hiking boots on that day and drove home. I knew at the time that totally irrational fears had paralyzed me. If the winds had been roaring down or avalanche warnings had been posted, this would have given me pause. Neither was the case. Life should not be about taking reckless risks. But none of those were present that day.

All of sudden, I recognized most of the fears that shut us down from doing amazing things are actually the ridiculous ones. We make it even worse by generalizing that fear in our head - too often forever.

'I failed once so I am a general loser.'
'I clearly don't know how to do this so I shouldn't start.'

A week after I drove home came the day I had planned and trained all year for: the hike to the top of the 14K peak. I was excited and had carefully packed everything. But some days are just not meant to be summited. I started the climb, but aborted before reaching the top. This time is was for all the right reasons.

My friends thought I would be crushed. I wasn't. I was at peace. It turns out I learned the lesson I set out to learn, not on the summit day, but the week before. The day - when for no good reason - I wouldn't put my shoes on and allow myself to even try.

I learned that it is the irrational fears that stop us from forging ahead to accomplish the most important things. I didn't need to reach the summit to learn that. In the failure to summit, I learned that failing in business or an election or in whatever was not the reason to stop. Learn something... yes. Important, humbling stuff...yes. Forget the rest...that is a big fat yes as well.

To think we can't do something big and important after a business or career failure - that was what was ridiculous. Fear and failure are always going to be a part of the process. Not all Meryl Streep's movies are hits. Does she stop making movies as a result? Of course not. Nor should we.

We are doomed to languish in a demoralizing pit if we don't understand failure is an inevitable part of the journey. And perhaps how we hone our craft and learn some of the essential lessons of life.

In the end, I uncovered a simple truth. Pay attention to the lessons, but don't let fear of failing shut us down. Go for it and don't hold back. The world needs you with your flaws not despite them.