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I posted this on my Facebook wall earlier this evening, and it generated a good discussion with my close friends about the fear of failure that we all sometimes have in our professional lives.

This isn't politically related in any way, but I figured I would re-post here if anyone else finds the discussion may have merit.  For a reference point, I am a technical leader in a Professional Services group for a well respected software company.

I'm also sort of drowsy from cough medicine right now, so excuse any grammatical errors.

This is going to be a long post for a Facebook update. And while it may sound like grandstanding, really it's about failure.

Someone at work the other day asked me how I always seem to be able to quickly find answers or solutions to any problem that I’m presented with. This particular conversation followed a meeting with the CIO and CFO of a major client. The client wanted to discuss feasibility of a customization to our standard software package.

After the meeting my co-worker and I were sitting in the conference room alone and they asked how I got so smart. I replied that I didn’t consider myself any smarter than other people on the team. What follows is the essence of what I told my co-worker:

A major reason I’m successful at what I do is that I’m not afraid of failure. And I fail. A lot. When most people find themselves struggling at work due to being given tasks they don’t know how to do, they’re fear of failure and seeming incompetent in the eyes of peers and managers force them to work conservatively. They stick with what they know, and while that’s a good thing, it can also hinder your personal growth.

I approach problems with an eye towards breaking down the input (the problem) into manageable components. Each component can then be addressed through research and development at a component level. That approach frees me up to experiment with different things. And sometimes that means trying 10 different things that all fail.

But failing a task 10 times, especially in a creative, engineering, or architecting environment isn’t a bad thing. I didn’t try 10 things that didn’t work. Each iteration of those failures teach me something about the problem that can then be applied to the next iteration. And just because that attempt didn’t work for this particular problem, I now have the little bit of more knowledge in my personal toolbox that I can apply to other problems down the road.

Spend five to ten years doing this, and you end up with a vast amount of failures that have taught you when and how certain problems can be addressed, and give you a backlog of failures you can compare new problems against.

In short, if you are in a position of creativity, whether it be making music, writing prose, or developing software systems, if you aren’t failing 10+ times a day you aren’t trying hard enough. Pushing yourself is how you sharpen your critical thinking skills. Pushing yourself is how you discover new theories and logic that you can reuse later.

So everyone out there who is stuck professionally and isn’t sure what to do with your next project, or career change, or whatever: don’t be afraid of failure. You’d be surprised how important failure can really be.

Originally posted to adversus on Sat Jan 26, 2013 at 08:39 PM PST.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.


In my current job, I fail at...

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Comment Preferences

  •  This is a pretty important diary, IMO. (17+ / 0-)

    I actually got better at my job when I gave up being terrified of failure. I am at my professional best right now because I am willing to take enormous risks, and the people who work for me are, too. We are kicking some serious ass.

    What is truth? -- Pontius Pilate

    by commonmass on Sat Jan 26, 2013 at 08:45:51 PM PST

  •  Agreeing From a Wildly Different Direction: (14+ / 0-)

    It's not uncommon for introductory sailboat training to start with a lesson on capsizing and man-overboard. Having been a sailing instructor I built on that experience in my 80's/90's computer instruction, to start with crashes and lockups.

    When you start by showing people that they can get themselves out of trouble, it's amazing how free they feel to push the boundaries of failure. You can make a learner more self reliant at the end of day 1 than they'd be months later if you spent all your time teaching them only how to avoid trouble.

    And I'm also an inventor, due to thinking wildly outside the box, and I would say 99% of my thinking on those projects were failure. The reason I kept at it was that I saw that the box wasn't working as needed; but lordy it took a lot of dead ends before I found one that finally led forward.

    We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

    by Gooserock on Sat Jan 26, 2013 at 08:46:26 PM PST

  •  I so needed this tonight! (10+ / 0-)
    In short, if you are in a position of creativity, whether it be making music, writing prose, or developing software systems, if you aren’t failing 10+ times a day you aren’t trying hard enough.....
    Thank you.

    I came for the politics and stayed for the science.

    by bwren on Sat Jan 26, 2013 at 08:56:39 PM PST

  •  I know what you are saying (6+ / 0-)

    I am in the process of chapter 7 bankruptcy. I had my business since 2006 and was doing great until 2011 when I could not collect payments form work done and I fought for too long to save the company and should have given it up before I had so much debt.

    "I want my fair share, and that's all of it" - Charles Koch

    by nancat357 on Sat Jan 26, 2013 at 09:10:12 PM PST

    •  Do you consider the failure to be in not (0+ / 0-)

      collecting payment, or in not knowing when to fold your business?

      I'm living in America, and in America you're on your own. America's not a country. It's just a business.

      by CFAmick on Sun Jan 27, 2013 at 07:18:52 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Not wanting the business to fail and it did (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        isabelle hayes

        "I want my fair share, and that's all of it" - Charles Koch

        by nancat357 on Sun Jan 27, 2013 at 07:31:18 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  learning from this (0+ / 0-)

          is to resolve that one will recognize next time anything like such a situation comes up

          not to base one's actions on what one would like/want

          that way the emotions are out of the equation and one has the opportunity to apply sober analysis

        •  that's a tough situation (0+ / 0-)

          Before I started my business, it was important to me to plan on how to decide when to consider it a failure and move on. There's a value to persistence, but also a value of seeing when to quit.

          I had the "advantage" of knowing about that problem beforehand, because my dad is a failed businessman. Occupation: failed businessman. The kind who never admits failure (even after 15 years of no income, mooching off his parents for living expenses, etc), where success is always around the corner, and still blames others for the failure ("it would have worked if only people had been smart enough to see what a great opportunity it was.")

          There's nothing wrong with trying and failing, but failing and refusing to admit the failure is a problem.

  •  Two things I love to do (7+ / 0-)

    are playing guitar and work with polymer clay & jewelry. There is no way I can do either of those without making mistakes. Out of those, though, I may end up with a nice melody/chord progression or a cool design. I don't consider either to be failure - just a new place to begin again.

    Good diary, thank you.

    Thank your stars you're not that way/Turn your back and walk away/Don't even pause and ask them why/Turn around and say 'goodbye'/Just wish them well.....

    by Purple Priestess on Sat Jan 26, 2013 at 09:27:25 PM PST

  •  my first real job (6+ / 0-)

    was as an EMT and then paramedic. The stakes are high enough that failure is not seen as a learning tool, although you do learn from it. From that experience, what I learned was that if you freeze and cannot do anything for fear you might do it wrong, in a crisis situation, you will indeed fail.

    Do something, do anything, do what was drilled into you, and you might have a chance; do nothing, and failure is assured.

    Anyone who scoffs at happiness needs to take their soul back to the factory and demand a better one. -driftglass

    by postmodernista on Sat Jan 26, 2013 at 10:54:14 PM PST

  •  It's tricky. (5+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    AgavePup, Yo Bubba, Justus, Wee Mama, adversus

    There's the fear of failure that inhibits innovation and striving for success. But there's also making failure one's familiar, planning to fail, because that insures and conserves the present condition. Failure is more certain than success and appeals to conservatives for that reason. Failure is secure; success is risky. Also, failure has more permanence and can go on for ever, while success is terminal.

    We organize governments to deliver services and prevent abuse.

    by hannah on Sun Jan 27, 2013 at 05:12:47 AM PST

    •  Someone posted on Facebook (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      They posted the well meaning comment that said that kids need to learn HOW to lose.  

      I had to slightly correct that and say that learning how to lose only encourages more losing.  It's learning FROM the losing that makes the big difference.


      by otto on Sun Jan 27, 2013 at 11:39:00 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  It seems like a lot schooling is based on (6+ / 0-)

    punishment of failure.  A student may show incredible improvement over time but the F's still count against them.

    Thanks for this reminder though. I often remind myself that photographers often take hundreds of pictures to get one good one.  

    •  Photographer Analogy (0+ / 0-)

      Is pretty spot on.  I'm also an amateur photographer and there are days when I'll take 800-1,000 shots (especially if I'm trying to catch birds in flight) and only "get" about 10.  

      You miss 100% of the shots you never take, is what I heard someone said.

      GOD! Save me from your followers.

      by adversus on Sun Jan 27, 2013 at 11:04:09 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  "If at first you don't succeed, (3+ / 0-)

    fail, fail again."   --Statler and Waldorf

    Thanks for this always timely reminder.

    Republicans represent both sides: the insanely rich and vice versa.

    by Crashing Vor on Sun Jan 27, 2013 at 06:48:59 AM PST

  •  Sometimes what appears to be (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    isabelle hayes

    the worst possible thing that could happen, turns out, over time to be  the best thing that could have happened.  I have learned not to pre-judge (well, not too much.)  

    "The light which puts out our sight is darkness to us." Thoreau

    by NancyWH on Sun Jan 27, 2013 at 07:01:07 AM PST

  •  a great coincidence (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    mmacdDE, isabelle hayes, adversus

    I am posting this comment while on a Southwest flight. As I was waiting to reach cruising altitude, I was reading Spirit, the airline magazine. I'll post a link to the article below but one thing that stood out in my mind was the following:

    “When kids are successful in school, that’s great, but we’re interested in seeing kids fail,” Korsunskiy says. He looks a little like Saturday Night Live ’s Andy Samberg, but he’s not joking. He points to a pile of doodles—kid-drawn inspirations for 1,001 SparkTruck projects—as evidence. “What we’re doing is creating a prototyping mind-set. You try something, you fail at something, you keep trying. We want kids to know it’s okay to make mistakes along the way.”

  •  My husband always told his team (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    isabelle hayes

    make a decision, if it's wrong that's ok but correct it.  But do something.  He is in R&D.  He mentored the people that worked in his group rather than controlling them.  He basically gave them permission to think, to try and to learn.  He let them know that as long as they made an attempt to solve a problem based on science and it failed it was ok as long as they told him and told him what they were going to to do next to solve the problem.  He also encouraged cooperation among his team and other teams.  Protecting territory can also get in the way of getting things done.

  •  Failing 11 times a day, though, is pushing it. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    •  Depends on what you're 'failing' at (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      isabelle hayes, 124NewYork

      If I'm trying a new technique to do something, I'm going to make a ton of mistakes the first time. Maybe the 10th time.

      That's OK, each mistake gets me closer to what I'm trying to do, and sometimes I find a different technique than what I thought would work.

      If I was 'failing' when driving a truck or performing surgery, that's another story. But that's what simulators are for - they let you 'fail' without anybody getting hurt.

      •  Meant that as tongue in cheek. (0+ / 0-)

        Good point about driving trucks, though.

      •  failing and someone else gets "hurt" (0+ / 0-)

        is surely not a good thing for that person, but

        as a lawyer, there are times when despite having done a good job, the client's position is not favored by the court/jury

        so as i don't practice criminal defense law, when that happens i'm not elated but not defeated either

        there are always moments during trials/events when one notices responses, reactions, etc. that are edifying for one alert for ways to improve

    •  You obviously aren't into photography then. (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      Expect to "fail" alot more than that before actually succeeding (getting that "right shot").  After all, what would you call a day of shooting where you take 200 pictures but only keep 5 or so?

      You have watched Faux News, now lose 2d10 SAN.

      by Throw The Bums Out on Sun Jan 27, 2013 at 11:10:13 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  I joined the Peace Corps (0+ / 0-)

    I went in knowing almost no Spanish and having a huge fear of public speaking.

     Now I get up in front of my class and clown in Spanish.

    It wasn't easy getting to this point. Not at all. But it was worth it.

    ¡Cállate o despertarás la izquierda! - protest sign in Spain

    by gjohnsit on Sun Jan 27, 2013 at 11:36:01 AM PST

  •  In his book, "The Art of Learning" (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    ferg, adversus

    Josh Waitzkin was the media celebrated chess player who is the focus of the movie, "Searching For Bobby Fischer."

    He tells of one story in his book about Taiwanese students attending an American university.  The students were given the option of taking a remedial English class before they went.  

    Many didn't take it, for fear that it would appear as if they didn't already know it.  

    The ones who were unafraid of this obviously did better.  

    Basically, the idea he shares is from a book called "Mindsets," by Carol Dwyer.  Her research shows that the people who are more likely to be successful at what they do are the people who are unafraid of experiencing risk.  The kids who don't mind looking stupid in order to try to understand something.  They are the ones who are more likely to grow into adults who have an ability to learn.  

    It's a challenge.  

    The lesson here is that you should encourage your kids to take risks.  I don't mean have them go jump out of a plane, or try to break the world's BASE jumping records.  I mean, they need to be rewarded for attempting things. Not just success.  

    For instance, as I taught science to the public for ten years, I would remind my audiences that we weren't applauding someone for knowing the answers, we were applauding them for being willing to speak up, and take the risk in front of other people in a public environment.  

    That is a difficult task for an adult to undertake in front of their children.  


    by otto on Sun Jan 27, 2013 at 11:36:55 AM PST

  •  This isnt about anything political either. (0+ / 0-)

    I mainly wanted to post this to show how valuable this mindset is in essentially any endeavor.

    I used to be too afraid of failing badly to participate in Pokemon tournaments, even ones over wifi cause of my fear of losing. But last time, I did participate.. I got 2,000th place. But that was okay! I had never battled other players before, in any of the games.

    Because I kept at it, because I kept the fight up to the bitter end, I ended up learning how different it was, and how much I was doing incorrectly.

    Im playing in the ongoing tournament too, and am already doing much much better. I realized that brute strength isnt going to cut it, that i had to plan ahead much better. Take a look at things I'd always done, and why they were wrong.

    Im not going to win this tournament I'm in. But I am confident that when its over, I'll have an even better idea of how these things work and be able to go farther!

    The only Bug-type Pokemon that can learn the move Fly - Volcarona and Genesect - Are not Flying types.

    by kamrom on Sun Jan 27, 2013 at 12:26:50 PM PST

  •  This is always a good reminder. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    adversus, RiveroftheWest

    I’m an aspiring novelist. When I first started sending out queries to literary agents, I was rejected 100% of the time, if I heard anything back at all. It took me a few months to realize that my query letter (a novel’s “pitch”) was lousy.

    So, I composed a new query. Same result. It took me a slightly shorter time to realize that version two wasn’t any better than my original.

    Back to the drawing board I went. Finally, I started getting some positive feedback – i.e., agents wanted to see my manuscript.

    Now, unfortunately, though I’ve come close a number of times to landing an agent, it hasn’t happened – yet.

    Thus, I’m still failing, though I’m getting closer, and when the day finally occurs when I do land an agent, it’ll be that much sweeter.

    And if I never do land an agent, and all my daydreams remain mere wisps of my imagination, at least I know I tried my best.

    The only way to guarantee true failure is to never try.

    Later this week, I’ll find the time to work on novel number two and do some more research on agents whom I think might be good fits for my first novel.

    I’ll never quit.

    How about I believe in the unlucky ones?

    by BenderRodriguez on Sun Jan 27, 2013 at 01:21:35 PM PST

  •  When you fall on your face (0+ / 0-)

    You're exactly 5'6" closer to where you started, I was told as a freshman in HS.   Now, I've grown a bit since then, but that additional 3 inches doesn't change the meaning.  

    Someone once asked me why I would invest in Kickstarter projects, and then not be mad if they failed.  I pointed out I had no problem investing $10 in an idea by someone.  If it didn't work, what did I lose?  $10.  If it did work, what did I gain?  I had invested in someone's idea.. and accomplishment.  

    Sometimes, failure is also the greatest teacher, it shows us that maybe our basic idea was wrong OR that we should reevaluate the idea altogether.

    Gandhi's Seven Sins: Wealth without work; Pleasure without conscience; Knowledge without character; Commerce without morality; Science without humanity; Worship without sacrifice; Politics without principle

    by Chris Reeves on Sun Jan 27, 2013 at 03:48:34 PM PST

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