The Value in Failure?!

I hate it when people throw failure around like it’s the greatest thing that can happen to you. Failure sucks. There is an entire post on the Thrive Blog called “We’ve Failed to Address Failure Correctly” that dives into this issue. The short of it is this, I hardly understand why there is anything good about failing to meet our objectives. Winners don’t want the participation ribbon, they want the trophy. I don’t know about you, but I want a team of winners. I find much more enjoyment in reaching goals, achieving objectives, and creating forward momentum. I don’t think the fortune 500 list has any failing companies on it (OK, OK, that is open to debate I guess….)

Now that that’s out of the way, I think we can define what people are really getting at when they want to talk about the “value” in failure.

The value of failure is in learning on the journey, but the journey exists if we fail or succeed.

Any type of goal or vision is going to be a destination at which we have not yet arrived. Consequently, there is going to be some type of journey involved in getting from where we are currently to where it is we need to be. While failing to execute effectively to meet goals is hardly a value, learning is deffinately one. There is massive amounts of learning to be had in situations of failure. In fact, the greater the goal, the larger the vision, the grander the leap, the more learning opportunities exist. The problem I have is that this same journey is traveled to success. I think we just find it easier to learn when we didn’t succeed. We don’t always stop to review and learn from from success. In contrast, when we fail we are much more likely to stop and ask “what happened”, learning from the mistakes along the way. Could we not look back on success and dissect why the decisions we made where correct as opposed to looking back on failure to ask why the decisisons we made where incorrect? I’m not suggesting that failure and success lead to the same persepctive, I’m simply pointing out that we can learn from both.

Learning is an intentional process. It’s an action and a value. Organizations and inviduals that value learning and development understand that every opportunity is ripe for education. The dictionary describes learning as a “systematic process” and a “practice”. These are things that we should be valuing on any journey, no matter the outcome. To me, failure is not something to be valued or packaged as some “safe place” for us to be. We can’t make failing to execute so valuable that we no longer drive towards success. If we perpetuate the idea of failure, we perpetuate unwise leaps with no regard for the potential outcome. Instead, I think we need to value learning. By doing this we can draw out the value in failure without making failure itself an acceptable outcome. Goals are good for us because of the callenges they provide and the journey they require. No matter the outcome, success or failure, we can learn a lot on this journey. It seems to me, though, that we should advance the idea of learning much before we advance the idea that failure is positive. Edison tried a lot of ideas before he found a lightbulb that would work. His infamous perspective was not that he had failed many times, but that he had learned a lot things that won’t work. I think this is the correct perspective. We set out to succeed and learn.

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3 thoughts on “The Value in Failure?!

  1. Micah, I think it is Edison’s version that most people think of when they value failure. Anything else, would only support mediocrity. You do touch on a valid point that not enough analysis is done after success as well. People are forever trying to improve their weaknesses and not focused enough on improving personal strengths. Similarly, when an organisation does something well, little attention is paid to what worked to educate for the next round of performance. This is why most often an organisation can misunderstand having had tail wind and think that it had everything to do with their own thrust that they moved forward at the rate they did.

    • micahyost says:

      Thanks for your comments! I agree, we should spend more time on our strengths. Of course there is great value in trying to improve in areas of weakness, but I also believe we should spend way more time operating in our strength areas!

      Thanks for your comments.


  2. John Wenger says:

    I’m with both of you Micah and Thabo. If a strengths-based view of the world is the starting point, people all over the place would be investing themselves in learning about their successes just as much as their failures.
    Cheers to both of you.

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