Shame of failure

shame of failure - image for article by Greg Alder

Lots of things prevent us from reaching our full potential. One of these is our aversion to failure.

It isn’t something we were born with. Babies feel no shame at failing something new, such as getting food to their mouths. They work at it until the triumphant moment when more food ends up in their mouths than on the floor.

But experience robs us of the innocence of failure. As we age and we continue to try new things, and fail at them, we find that we’re laughed at – by those who have mastered the skill. By our peers, teachers, coaches, parents and even strangers.

A 5-year-old will get on a surfboard without fear of being laughed at by veteran 45-year-old board riders every time she falls off. A 45-year-old won’t because she fears being laughed at by 5-year-olds.

Some of the most shared YouTube videos are of failures. Humans landing painfully on a river bank. Cats with heads stuck in bottles.

Slapstick comedy is a comedy of failure. The funniest scenes of Buster Keaton, Laurel & Hardy, The Pink Panther, The Naked Gun and Christmas Vacation feature failure.

We feel no shame at laughing at the failures of others. But we feel deep shame at our own.

And that’s a shame.

Failure is a rite of passage for entrepreneurship. There are few monumental successes that haven’t been preceded by equally monumental failures. Remember Nobel laureate Niels Bohr’s great line, “An expert is a man who has made all the mistakes which can be made in a very narrow field”.

Failure gives us greater understanding of our field and task. In an experiment at Singapore’s National Institute of Education, two groups of students were set the task of solving new mathematics problems using two different methods.

The first group of students was taught the traditional way we are in school. The teacher showed the students how to solve the problem and then allowed them to practise.

The second group was asked to solve the problem with no demonstration of how to solve it.

Ultimately, both groups of students were able to solve the problems. However, the second group, the group without teacher guidance, showed a “significantly greater conceptual understanding of the subject”.

More importantly, they were better able to reapply what they’d learnt to new problems.

There is just one precaution to take when attempting something untried. That is to minimise the potential damage. Try it on a small scale. That’s why global companies test-market products.

And when you fail, do not walk away muttering, “Well THAT didn’t work”. Dig deep to understand why you failed. Correct that mistake. Try again. Repeat until you succeed.

Two college dropouts started a business collecting traffic data in Washington state. When the state gave away their data, their business model collapsed and the dropouts had to think of a new idea. That new idea was Microsoft. The dropouts of course were Bill Gates and Paul Allen.

Walt Disney was fired from his journalism job because he lacked good ideas.

Michael Jordan, the greatest basketballer we have yet seen, wrote, “I have missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I have lost almost 300 games. On 26 occasions I have been entrusted to take the game-winning shot, and I missed. I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

Until you give yourself permission to fail, you will fail to do anything remarkable.

Photo by Alex Proimos via Wikimedia
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