Fatal failures to sterling successes
“Few of our own failures are fatal," economist and Financial Times columnist Tim Harford writes in his new book, Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure.
Seems paradoxical? In fact throughout our lives we have been conditioned to succeed. Failure is taboo. It starts with the school with our parents and teachers parroting information into us feeding us with only one goal in life – to stand first , to stand out. Failures are scorned upon and rebuffed. It instills in us a deep rooted fear of failure and we treat failure as fatal. Another enemy of all of us that lives inside us is the three letter word ego. It feeds on us killing us to the very core. Whenever we fail, our mistakes stare us in the face, we often find it so upsetting that we miss out on the primary benefit of failing the chance to get over our egos and come back with a stronger and smarter approach.
When it comes to failing, egos are our own worst enemies. As soon as things start going wrong, our defence mechanisms kick in, tempting us to do what we can to save our face. Yet, these very normal reactions -- denial, chasing your losses, and hedonic editing -wreak havoc on our ability to adapt. It seems to be the hardest thing in the world to admit we've made a mistake and try to put it right. It requires you to challenge a status quo of your own making. Another reaction is we're so anxious not to draw a line under a decision, we regret that we end up causing still more damage while trying to erase it. For example, poker players who've just lost some money are primed to make riskier bets than they'd normally take in a hasty attempt to win the lost money back and erase the mistake. Or still we engage in "hedonic editing," we try to convince ourselves that the mistake doesn't matter, bundling our losses with our gains or finding some way to reinterpret our failures as successes.
Adapt to adept
To be adept at something and change the failure to success, we must first adapt and use an experimental approach to succeed. The more complex and elusive our problems are, the more effective trial and error becomes. Before we take a decision or come up with a great idea, we cannot predict whether our "great idea" will actually sink or swim once it's out there.
So the best way is to do it and then work towards making it right. Risking failure is the first step towards success. You need to make your ego adapt to a scenario where everything does not turn out the way you expected it to be. There might be instances when you have a downslide of one failure after another till you hit the rock bottom. And believe me this is essential coz this is also the ground for laying a solid foundation where there is only one wayup. So instead of going on a guilt drive or on a selfdenial route, this is what you should do:
Expose yourself to lots of different ideas and try lots of different approaches on the grounds that failure is common. Look for experimental approaches where there's lots to learn - projects with small downsides but bigger upsides. Too often we take on projects where the cost of failure is prohibitive, and just hope for the best.
It is always better to swim in shallow waters before plunging in deep seas.
This is the easiest to state and the hardest to stick to: know when you've failed.
This is the hard part. We've been trained that persistence pays off, so it feels wrong to cut our losses and label an idea a failure. But if you're truly selfaware and listening closely after a release of your idea, you can't go wrong. Being able to recognise a failure just means that you'll be able to re- cast it into some-
thing more likely to succeed.
Above all, feedback is essential for determining which experiments have succeeded and which have failed. Get advice, not just from one person, but from several. Some professions have built-in feedback: reviews if you're in the arts, sales and analytics if you release a web product, comments if you're a blogger. If the feedback is harsh, be objective, take the venom out and dig out the real advice.
Do not fall in love with your idea
It's important to be dispassionate: forget whether you're ahead or behind and try to look at the likely costs and benefits of continuing from when you are.
Don't get too attached to your plan. There's nothing wrong with a plan, but remember the famous dictum that no plan survives first contact with the enemy. The danger is a plan that seduces us into thinking failure is impossible and adaptation is unnecessary - a kind of "Rime of the Ancient Mariner"--when you only realise you have failed the ice wash here, the ice was there, the ice was all around. Being able to recognise a failure just means that you'll be able to re- cast it into something more likely to succeed.
Practice in private
It has been said, "The best failures are the private ones you commit in the confines of your own room with no strangers watching."
One of my friends who wishes to improve her communication skills does this: She rises as 5:30am and videotapes herself speaking whatever comes to her mind three hours each morning, happy if she extracts just 30 seconds of usable material from the whole tape. This is a great example of a safe space to fail. But many of us don't have this luxury of time or freedom.
Assuming that you don't operate a nuclear power plant for a living, you can probably infuse a bit more freedom and flexibility into your workday. Give yourself permission to test out a few off-the-wall ideas mixed in with the by-the-book ideas. Also try to practice a number of things that diversifies the risk and the hurt too. Just make sure you do not dilute the effort.
Explore many ideas and then weed out those that fall short. Pluralism works because life is not worth living without new experiences. Try a lot of things, and commit only to what's working.
Remember your college days… every day had a new beginning that started with experimentation. We were constantly experimenting with new friends, a new city, new hobbies and new ideas - and we'll often mess up academically and socially as a result. But we know that as long as we don't screw up too dramatically, we'll finish college, graduate, and move on - that mix of risk and safety is intoxicating. Yet somehow as we grow older we lose it. No matter what age and stage of life you may be, never lose its freshness and youth. Tell yourself, "It is perfectly alright, no heavens are going to fall, even if I fail." Then and only then you will be able to convert fatal failures to… sterling successes. (The writer is a Punjab- based education counsellor with 12 years of experience. She can be contacted at gauri_nag[email protected]hoo.com )