Habits, Failure & Success: profit more from your mistakes
The ideas on this page and in the connected articles will help you construct an inner perspective and outward habits to increase the probability of learning from failure, and therefore succeeding more often, as well as being less bothered by the failure itself.
I’ve grouped the ideas of habits, failure and success together, because they are inextricably connected and affect each other. Being a leader in a new business and surviving the start of that business necessarily includes failure, and what habits you have around failure determine your level of success.
Read on or see all the articles on Habit, Failure & Success at the bottom of the page.
Learn more from what you do
We have a terrible stereotype: leaders are supposed to be “right,” they are supposed know what to do, how things work, and what the best decision is. If you are a leader, you know how prevalent this is. (When all eyes in the room are on you, you also know what kind of pressure that causes.)
But that stereotype isn’t true – leaders are human, and we are all fallible, especially when we are in new situations and unfamiliar territory. In short, we fail.
How can you learn more from your failures? How can that learning increase how likely you will be to succeed?
Our mindset, our habits and our beliefs determines the way in which failure affects us, whether we can learn from it, and whether what we learn is useful to us. We can’t control everything that happens to us, but we do have control over ourselves and how we react to what happens.
And so, examining how you respond to and how you think about failure determines whether it is useful to you or not.
What are your habits when you fail?
There’s a difference between trying to avoid failure and trying to succeed. If you are mostly motivated by an attempt to avoid failing, making mistakes or being wrong, the actions that you take are determined by how you see a potential negative. Your behavior and decisions become less about succeeding and more about not being wrong, and the absence of failure is definitely not success.
Instead, in order to succeed and achieve a goal, you must embrace the process of trying and learn during it. You don’t want to ignore failure, but make sure that you don’t make efforts only so you can avoid it. Make success and learning your motivation, and don’t act or decide something only so you don’t admit failure.
First, failure is where we learn, as long as we accept it and get perspective – we can’t learn without it. We all make mistakes as leaders, whether we make a clear, black-and-white wrong call or there’s part of what we do that could be a little better. No matter how we define not hitting the mark we intended to, its failure, and it’s the first step in making a change to then be able to perform more accurately.
Failure informs us, and reveals how we can change to get closer to where we want to be.
Second, if you are motivated by avoiding failure, it’s very easy to explain or rationalize a bad result – even if what you say is unspoken and completely internal. If you fail as a leader, you have a choice – on one hand, you can say, “Even though I failed, my decision was a good one, except for this one thing.” That’s a rationalization. What did you learn?
On the other hand, you can admit the failure, examine it carefully and honestly, and say, “In my next decision like this, I can craft things differently and get a better outcome.”
Which way of looking at failure would benefit you more?
Embrace the “messy middle”
Sometimes when we fail, we reflexively revert to being positive, immediately talk about our failure being a learning experience, habitually find the silver lining, and then move on. We are familiar with the tropes about failure, positive attitude and how to “stay on track.”
How helpful is that response?
Many of us don’t have the habit of learning when we fail – no matter how big or small they are – because it’s uncomfortable and easier to say and do what is socially acceptable, not to mention easier.
“What can you do?”
“Live and learn.”
“I just care too much.”
Those common phrases aren’t exactly wrong, but we often miss the “messy middle” that Bené Brown describes when we experience failure and stay with it, until we learn. In her framework, the beginning is the failure and the end is the resulting effect of failure on you. It is in that middle where we struggle with our failure, assumptions and disappointment – and that is where we learn and then adapt.
Failing is a complex and sometimes exhausting beast. There is no tried-and-true set of steps that ensure you learn in every single situation, although the principles of acceptance, honestly and humility combined with a conscious decision to stay present describes the best path towards growth.
Honesty, acceptance and ego
Learning from failure requires at least three things: honesty about what has happened, acceptance that is has, and the ability to detach from your ego.
First, being honest about your failure reveals all aspects of what has gone wrong, without explanation. You need to know the details and the breadth of your failure in order to learn from it, and any preliminary justification or rationalization short-circuits that understanding. Understanding your mistake enables you to adjust your aim and operate differently.
We also can’t learn from a failure that we don’t accept, and the most common way we keep acceptance at bay is rationalizing and justifying (see a theme here?). Accepting failure is not agreeing to it, and it is also not a part of your identity or definition as a person. You made a mistake, you are not a mistake.
Thirdly, your ego does not want to be wrong. Ever. It is there to protect us from harm, ensure our survival, and how we see ourselves. It drives us to get social approval, it’s very sensitive to disapproval, and is quite fragile.
Our egos can also sway or determine our reactions to difficult situations, such as failure, by – you guessed it – rationalizing, justifying and explaining the failure away so we don’t honestly accept it.
That keeps us from learning. So by taking a pause, reminding yourself to be honest, accepting what’s happened, and examining your motivations for how you are reacting, you create the real environment where you can learn from failure.
There is a massive reward for a leader who is both honest and can keep his or her ego at bay: not only do you learn something new and valuable, but your team members, co-workers and employees have more reason to trust you and respect you.
Other steps to take
In addition to honestly, acceptance and detachment, successfully dealing with failure is different for everyone, but there are some common principles to keep in mind:
Take Responsibility: Taking responsibility is an excellent habit for many reasons, the first of which is that if you don’t take responsibility, then what happened is completely outside your control. Why try to do anything at all then?
Instead, see your failure as an opportunity to change the way you have prepared, the way you think of things, and what you can possibly do.
Be clear with your employees about your mistake, and what you learned and how you will approach similar decisions in the future. Most failure is visible to others, especially in business, and you won’t gain any positive effects from rationalizing or blaming. Maintain a professional attitude and delivery, but make sure your message is clear.
Make your learning concrete: Talking with a trusted advisor or mentor about the actual lessons you’ve learned forces you to articulate that learning in a way that someone else can understand, and by doing this, you cement your learning. Don’t be surprised if your trusted source has questions or a different take, and be prepared to alter your first written or vocal expression.
It’s also useful to tie what you’ve learned to something that you have coming up, and think about how you can make that future decision better or less prone to failure.
Forgive: Leaders can be brutal on themselves, especially when we can see that our bad decisions affect those around us. It’s a natural consequence of being a decent human being. (Sidenote: not feeling badly at all about your failure isn’t a great sign either.)
But if you don’t forgive yourself, you haven’t really learned, and you’re dragging around something that you can use to criticize yourself (and actually serve as a reason for more failure) instead of moving forward. There’s a point between naturally feeling bad about what you did poorly and a time when you can let the bad feeling go and retain the lesson. That point is not easily defined and depends on the specifics of what happened, but it’s not never.
Examine your habits and processes: In business, failure can often be linked to how we usually do something, and changing that process can be a big step in preventing future failures.
It is important here to be honest and critical without blame, because the goal is not to rationalize, explain or be right – the goal is to learn and become more capable and achieve your goals.
Browse more articles and videos on Habits, Failure & Success below, or go back to Practical Resources.