We have to learn from our mistakes. Failure is an opportunity to learn. The only failure is a failure to learn. Never give up. Assess, regroup, and try again.
We hear it. We know it. But how do we do it? How do we make sure we learn from our mistakes and prevent our failures from defeating us? How do we overcome the emotional gut-punch that accompanies failure, the cognitive dissonance that comes when we cannot do what we think we can do? How do we make sure that when we fail (and we will fail) we learn instead of lose?
It’s all about preparation.
First, and this is first because it is the key, we must expect to fail. We must consider it a badge of honor. We must see our failures as the signposts that they are. The bright, flashing signals that we are pushing boundaries. That we are doing the hard things. That we are taking on new challenges. We have to expect that our first plan might be good but not great. We must decide that we will succeed in the mission, the vision, and expect that we will fail along the way.
And, because we expect to fail, we must be on the lookout for signs of failure. It is easy to ignore the negative trends, to marshal the full force of our optimism, to continue on after the first few signs of trouble. Because we are amazing and capable. And we want so badly to succeed in our plans. Looking for the subtle hints of failure gives us an opportunity to intercede early, to change course slightly, to correct as we go.
Looking for the early signs of failure also helps us create good habits in a low-stakes environment. We get to practice digesting the new information, assessing the impact on the expected outcome, and making a change that will keep us on the pathway to success. Doing this in the early stages of the plan—when the vendor shows up to the first meeting 15 minutes late, or you realize the two key designers have a history of competition instead of collaboration—will help you exercise your learn-from-mistakes-and-correct-the-course muscle. And you’ll need that muscle when things get really rough in the middle. Because they always do.
But we’re still at the beginning, preparing to learn from (inevitable) failure.
And at the beginning, when we are mapping out our pathway to greatness, we need set aside some time to plan our response to failure. What are we going to do when it starts to fall apart? Because even though we expect to fail and we know it won’t always be easy, it still won’t feel good. Failure sucks. And it hurts. And the alarm bells ringing in our emotional centers will overwhelm the quiet logical voice reminding us that this is an opportunity to learn. So we need to prepare for that, too.
A failure plan puts your intellect back in charge, exactly when you need it. But only if you create it before the pain of failure sets in.
A good plan for failure has a few critical elements. First, it must acknowledge the suck. Don’t try to push it away, or hide it, or rely on yourself or anyone else to (wo)man up. You won’t. Give yourself time to grieve or vent or get pissed. Burn off some of that energy. Then, get to work.
Next, the plan must focus on what you can control. Put another way: Avoid blaming. Understanding the root of the problem is important, but blaming others disempowers you. What happened? What did you do to contribute? How could you have performed differently? What will you do going forward? You only can control yourself. This is your mission and vision. So focus where it counts.
And then you must know what works for you. How do you learn best? Are you a list-maker? A pros and cons aficionado? Do you love to brainstorm and think out loud? Are you an internalizer? Or do you want input from outsiders? Craft a plan that takes your learning preference into account, and you will set yourself up to learn from your mistakes. It’s the only way.
There is no one right way to do this. No how-to guide or five-step process. Your learn from failure plan will be as unique as you are. The point here is that you must have one. Failure will come. Mistakes happen. The road to greatness is full of ruts and fallen trees. Decide in advance what you will do when you fail, and you will succeed.
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