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Re-defining Failure (And Success!)

by | Mindset

Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts. Winston Churchill

When was the last time you failed at something? How did you know?

A lot of discussion happens in entrepreneurial / creative circles around the subject of failure. There are some who argue that failure is a critical part of growth. Others argue that failure is over-celebrated and the cultural obsession with “failing fast and failing often” is encouraging the wrong kind of focus.

I was watching a fascinating interview with Sara Blakely, the founder of Spanx and newbie on the Forbes list of richest people. In the interview (and in the Forbes article) she shares that when she was a child her father made it a habit to ask on a regular basis “what did you fail at this week?” When she replied, “nothing” he would retort, “Oh…that’s too bad.”

Of this ritual she says,

My definition of failure became ‘not trying’, not the outcome.

Our definition of failure defines more about us than we may realize, because the fear of failure is one of the most frequent sources of creative paralysis. When the perceived threat of potential consequence outweighs the perceived benefits of success, we stop acting.

Notice the word “perceived”. These consequences are often illusory, but in our mind they are as real as a tiger staring us down. The problem is that we can go for days, weeks, months, years, lifetimes without every really getting to the bottom of this fear. The result is that we forfeit our best work.

The two things that will paralyze us creatively faster than any others:
1. We haven’t defined success.
2. We haven’t defined failure.

If we don’t have a clear definition of what we’re trying to do, we will spin out. Simultaneously, if we don’t have a clear definition of “missing the mark” we will experience paralysis. The simple act of clarifying these two concepts can immediately yield courage for your creative efforts.

So something to think about this week: how do you define failure, and how do you define success?

Here’s the full interview:

Todd Henry

Todd Henry

Positioning himself as an “arms dealer for the creative revolution”, Todd Henry teaches leaders and organizations how to establish practices that lead to everyday brilliance. He is the author of five books (The Accidental Creative, Die Empty, Louder Than Words, Herding Tigers, The Motivation Code) which have been translated into more than a dozen languages, and he speaks and consults across dozens of industries on creativity, leadership, and passion for work.

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  1. fjr

    I agree that there is a cultural obsession with failing fast and often, with creating imperfectly, and yet droves of people articulating these common mantras do so as if their waving this flag is evidence of rare enlightenment! A problem arises when people churn out consistently mediocre stuff without attention to quality or sensitivity to feedback, defending this routine in terms of that mantra. Mediocrity can become a habit and often does. This too becomes a cultural effect if people’s definition of success, then becomes churning out lots of mediocre stuff (because it fails often, the new goal).
    It’s making a great and intelligent effort and still failing that is of value rather than putting out many thin or poorly considered efforts repeatedly and failing often in them. It is taking risks while still putting forward quality that is of value.
    My significant failures have both been in not succeeding in getting two different organizations to consider seriously a minority position. In one case the minority position was actually the most defensible in terms of effectiveness but would have been politically courageous for the organization or its leadership.The second case was one of trying to open the door to letting underlings express their ideas in a different organization with an organizational culture in which only conforming opinions were allowed.
    Both times personal and professional integrity demanded that I try hard, though both were long-shots. I have no regret in either case.

  2. Tricia

    I also think the most critical aspect of this is the difference between having a Fixed Mindset and a Growth Mindset. The pain of failure to someone with a strong Fixed Mindset cannot be overstated. It is possible to change to a Growth Mindset, but it is neither easy nor quick. 

    It sounds as if Ms Blakely was lucky enough to have learned the Growth Mindset at an early age. Many of us were harshly punished (emotionally as well as — sometimes — physically) for failure. 

    Your suggestions about defining both success and failure are great. I would only add that sometimes there is a deeper and more powerful belief system at work that also needs to be addressed.

  3. Ernest Ivy

    Failure is a man made word and a product of semantics. In other words, failure is a matter of perception and success is a matter of perception. If I open a donut shop and close it down, I didn’t fail…I simply wasn’t interested enough in the business to keep it open. If someone really want to make a business work, that person will come up with the answer by never giving up. Spud Web was the shortest basketball player ever, and was a star basketball player and even won a slam dunk championship trophy. So, if Spud Web had stopped playing basketball, many people may say “he failed,” because of his height or whatever the reason, but in actuality, he stopped because he just wasn’t that interested in basketball. I don’t believe in the word failure and if I’m content with my life-no matter what’s going on, then I’m successful; I don’t have to be rich, or married, or have a big house…contentment is a mental choice and not an act or possession. Failure is a perception and not a fact.

  4. Ernest Ivy

    I saw a reality program which showed a man who was a bow and arrow marksman and won many contests. He had a big house, a beautiful wife, and 2 kids. What was remarkable about him, is that he had no arms and shot the bow and arrow with his feet and toes. He did well because he really wanted to, and if he had not kept trying, some people may have said “he failed,” but in actuality, he just wasn’t that interested in being a bow and arrow marksman if he didn’t keep trying. There is no such thing as failure…only perception. How a person choose to feel, is what defines that person’s life. I choose to be happy and content with my life-no matter what’s going on, and that’s success, because that’s my perception of success and no one else has to be satisfied with that thought because no one can live my life for me or feel what I feel…the choice is always mines.


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