A friend of mine is a successful businessman, running an international company that he started from scratch. Before Fred became successful, though, he spent 10 years losing money going from one failed venture to the next. That’s the point where many people would have packed it in and gone to work for another businessman.
But not Fred.
“Quitting wasn’t an option for me,” Fred told me. “I had to learn to fail better every time. Making a mistake and failing doesn’t mean you quit. I believe failure makes you better and stronger. It makes you a better human being.”
It is much the same attitude Thomas Edison had in his quest to invent a light bulb. He famously said, “I have gotten lots of results! If I find 10,000 ways something won’t work, I haven’t failed. I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is often a step forward.”
This is the principle of failing forward. Instead of letting a failure create a stopping point, Fred and Thomas Edison and many successful people like them used failure as a stepping stone to their next attempt at success. They analyzed why they’d failed, made adjustments and moved on to the next project.
Failing is almost always a prerequisite for success because people afraid of failing rarely take the risks necessary to move forward and develop new ideas. They get stuck in ruts or simply follow the well-traveled paths of other people’s ideas.
Leaders can either foster or hinder innovation by their own attitudes toward failure. Leaders who demand perfection from their employees before presenting a finished work will have a team of people who play it safe – they’ll have few failures but also few real success stories.
On the other hand, leaders who have a high tolerance for failure may find a messy playing field littered with half-baked ideas, but will discover one or two that soar to great heights of success. Many of the world’s best products – from sticky notes to cornflakes – developed from failures.
To fail forward, follow these guidelines:
- Stop expecting to succeed on your first attempt.
- Get over the fear of failure.
- When failure happens, analyze: What went wrong and most importantly, what went right that you can use as the building blocks for the next attempt.
- Try again, using the knowledge gained from the previous attempts.
- Repeat until successful.
True failure comes when people give up, and as Edison noted, giving up often comes at the worst time.
“Many of life’s failures are experienced by people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up,” Edison said.
My friend Fred encourages the same approach.
“The only person in this country who will stop you is you,” he said. “It’s a matter of how many times are you willing to fail and how many hours are you willing to work?”