Oct 16

Failure to Learnings, Learnings to Success, A Practice

This is probably only consciously, but recently one of the things I have been hearing a lot of are messages around the idea there is no failure, only winning or lessons to learn. Fail your way to success. Fail faster so you move quicker to succeeding etc etc etc. Its all perception, just change the way you look at failure, so you embrace it rather than fear it. I thought I’d write this post in reflection of this, a practical guide to failing your way to success, as I don’t think its that simple.

To start with, failure hurts. There is that ego thing there. Something we committed to, or were invested in isn’t working, we need to let it go both emotionally and also let go of any other investment we’ve put in. This is often difficult. The other challenge with embracing failure is that it costs. There is always a time cost involved with failure, more often than not there are other cost too. Money, love, relationship, confidence, reputation etc etc etc. This all makes failure hard to admit, hard to accept and hard to move on from.

That being said, if done well failure can provide real value building blocks on the road to success, if recognised and integrated. I’ve made a conscious habit to build this into my life and there are three parts to my process that I’ll explore in this post. These are:

  1. Balance the ledger
  2. Stepping back
  3. Crystalising your gains

Here they are:

Balancing The Ledger – Making Good on Failure

So how do we go from fear of failure, to the concept of failing our way to success? I think a big part to understand first is to look at integrity. I always look at answering the question: “Are my failures only costing me, or is there a cost to others that, in all reasonableness, I am responsible for?” If the answer to this is that I am the only one suffering a cost, thats a big bogey off my back. I can go back to failing till my heart is content. If other people are involved though, it becomes a weight to carry. It gets in the way of the next move as its a responsibilty you need to carry.

Once in my life this went wrong for me in quite a big way. I wasn’t the cause for the failure. It was actually caused by others who were dishonest, unethical and ruthless in their dirty business dealings. Nevertheless, it was my descisions that ultimately put me and a few investors in this position. I felt and took responsibility for the failure. What I did is make sure I made good on the cost others suffered, bringing these people with me, honestly and with integrity, on the next step of my journey which was a big success. In failure, if you feel you let people down, you need to make good on it. Not for their sakes, but for yours. You need to lift that weight off your shoulders so you can continue to learn and make better decisions. Note, this isn’t always financial too. Sometimes the impact on others is emotional, or other than financial. We all know when our actions cost people. We all feel it. The question isn’t whether its there, its whether we block out that little voice or make good on it.

In my internal language – I call this “Balancing the Ledger”. Its a good practise I find as it ensures I can always look people in the eye. It ensures I don’t walk away from a transaction with a karmic debt.

Stepping Back – Finding Creative Space

The next part in the equation for me is stepping back from everything, giving myself the space to see what is actually going on, removing the chatter of my own ego, and that of everyone else’s opinions and all those voices filling in those moments of silence. People hate silence don’t they!

You need to find a way to remove yourself from the noise and distractions and constant movement of what is going on around you. For me, it was actually at my lowest point in my life where I found this point. I found myself at the end of a big failure, about $3000 away from bankrupcy (which I avoided thankfully), and then my best friend died of bowel cancer. I found myself basically with nothing, losing 10 years worth of work, and was then given a decent dose of perspective in the same days.

When I hit this point, I just stopped struggling, I stopped struggling against the current. I stopped proving myself to the world, I stopped listening to everyone else’s opinions, I stopped clutching oh so tightly to obsessions around success, riches and reputation… and in letting go of all that I found the quiet, the breathing space and the room to look at things properly and also re-find my creative spark. In retrospect it was quite an amazing moment. Only in losing everything did I get back to the real me that could look at everything properly, through my eyes, with my wisdom and from there apply my courage to finding and activating solutions.

Since that time, some years ago now, I continually and deliberately give myself the time, the silence and the space to access this creative space, where I can learn, understand, create and apply solutions. Without giving ourselves this space, it is so easy to find ourselves in a cycle of repeating, repeating and repeating the same failures, never learning anything, never growing and losing large chunks of our lives, which is more expensive and irreplacabe than anything else I can imagine.

So the second step in my pratical guide to finding success from failure, is to create the space to truly understand the lessons from things that didn’t work, and the space where I am creative and courageous enough to let go and move forward from that point.

Crystalising Your Gains

Its quite easy to not bring the things we learn into our lives. Even when we recognise the lessons, improving ourselves or our situations requires change. And not just any change, but deliberate, conscious change. Not only is this difficult because change is scary, its also difficut because often we operate in “auto-pilot” mode, rather than consciously. This means that even when we have the best intentions, we are ruled by habits and reactions and never really get anywhere. So how can we crystalise the learnings from incidents of failure, to ensure we move towards habits more closely aligned with success?

In business, I have found this easier than in personal life. In business the answer is simple. Create proper, robust processes to manage your business. This is what I did. In doing this, I have immediately found that my business runs much better and the level of quality I deliver is much more consistent and of a higher level than before. I use an online service to do this called Sweet Process and have now processized my entire business. Product delivery. Human resources. Accounts and administration. Everything is driven by process. We even have a process to create and change processes.

What this means is that when something in my business fails, it points to one of two things. Either a process has failed or someone didn’t follow a process. In both cases it is very easy to pinpoint the reason and place of failure. When it occurs due to someone not following process (which can be an employee, contractor or even a client) we have the choice to train the person, or move them on if the situation is untrainable. If it is a case of a failure in a process though, we can pinpoint where this happened and then take a step back and brainstorm the best way to make a better process, so the incidence of the previous failure doesn’t happen again. Over time our processes and deliberate method of improving when things go wrong have built success into the business. Its almost impossible for our business to fail now due to this approach.

Dealing with so callled “personal” failure is a bit more difficult though as we can’t really processize ourselves, and because we often do operate in an auto-pilot mode, reacting rather than proacting to different stimuli that triggers emotion in us. In recognising this, this is where I start. When I do something that I perceive as a personal failure, it is usually because I was not happy with the way I reacted and then dealt with a situation. I know I could have made better decisions, but I didn’t. I just ran along headstrong down a path of destructve consequence as I’d always had. It reminds me of a poem I once heard – no idea who wrote it…

Here lies the body of William Jay

He died maintaining his right of way

He was right, dead right, as he sped along

But he’s just as dead as if he were wrong

So with the understanding that often it is “auto-pilot” reactions creating this failure in what I am doing, I try to start with the triggers. When I am on auto-pilot, what was the trigger that started me down that path? How can I recognise when that trigger is happening early, before I react or take ill-considered action. By bringing awareness to the trigger, I find I have given myself a chance.

From there though, it still probably takes me two or three “failures” before I catch it in advance. Each time I miss though I have an opportunity to explore it again. “Oh, there it is again. I should have seen it that time. I should have pulled up and done this better.” I even sometimes get into the stage of seeing it but heading down the failure path in an “non-caring” but conscious way. “I know I’m triggered but I don’t care as I feel aggrieved and angry”. Re-explore. Re-examine myself. Learn.

At some point I just end up catching myself, getting it right. When I do this, I am also conscious of getting it right. And boy doesn’t that feel good. Then I get it right a few more times, congratulating myself along the way. Then at some point its a new habit. The journey of failure, learning to success is complete. I’m a better person, the world is a better place.

So that is how it works for me. A practical guide to success through failure. Here are the three steps again.

  1. Balance the Ledger
  2. Take a step back
  3. Crystalise the gains

I hope you found these ideas useful. Failure only leads to success if you take the time to examine the pearls of learning there, then make real change to bring those learnings into your life. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this and your ideas around the journey to success, from failure.

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