Flirting with failure

If you’ve ever watched a baby learn to walk, you’ve seen them fall down. If you’ve ever taught a child to ride a bike, you’ve seen them fall off. If you’ve ever tried anything new, then failure is definitely old news. But it is one aspect of life we prefer to avoid.

Companies striving to increase performance, innovate and move a step ahead of the competition are often urging their people to become close and personal with failure by taking risks and trying new things.

To accomplish this, people must be willing to not just embrace their mistakes on occasion, but to crawl right into bed with them. As a society, we celebrate the one “eureka” moment, but the 1000 “oh crap” instances are rarely mentioned.

The dirty work of taking risks and making mistakes requires people to overcome their fear of failure. Failure must become a natural part of their environment – freely admitted, discussed and even rejoiced.

In this great video, Spanx CEO Sara Blakely reveals how her father used to ask her and her brother each day at dinner what they’d failed at that day. He’d even high five her for being horrible at something. She said this helped her define what failure was – failure wasn’t trying and not having it work out, failure was simply just not trying at all.  

To build this type of environment where people willingly reveal their mistakes, a foundation of trust must first be laid. When people feel safe and secure in the knowledge that their failings won’t be used against them, most will happily share their downfalls. And it is when this occurs that true innovation happens.

3M believes this type of environment in their company is responsible for many of their innovations. The humble, but ubiquitous Post-It Note wouldn’t exist today if it wasn’t for Dr. Spencer Silver being comfortable talking about his failure to develop a super-strong adhesive, and believing that someone else could find a use for the super-weak adhesive he ended up creating. Instead of hiding his failure, he spent years showing it off to colleagues throughout the company.


Now’s the time to reframe how we all think about failure.