Re-defining Failure (And Success!)

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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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