Thursday, December 1, 2011

Failure IS an Option

Failure isn't just an option, if you are going after something major, failure is inevitable. I recently came across an issue of the Harvard Business Review that came out on the spring. It's dedicated to failure. Yes, I said failure. We talk often about success but failure is never discussed. It's the other F word, and like the obscene F word, we don't want to use it in polite company. Yet, failure is the flip side of success - two sides of the very same coin. With a coin, you can't have heads without tails and you can't have success without failure.

The issue focuses on some of businesses biggest CEOs and their philosophies and stories of failure. One succinctly said, "The only failure in failure is when we fail to learn from it." An very compelling argument can be made that we learn more from failure than success. Also failing prior to succeeding makes our success, when we get it, that much sweeter. We appreciate it that much more.

It scares me when I see how many parents shield their kids from failure, in an effort to improve their self-esteem. The problem with that is that it doesn't work. Winning all of the time, being rewarded for just showing up and being coddled and told you are wonderful 24 hours a day doesn't build self-esteem as much as it creates a dangerous level of narcissism. Learning that you are okay even when you fail and learning how to bounce back and be resilient are much better teachers of self-esteem.

I remember once, as a child, I was so bored that I actually did my chores. I did them without being chided, yelled at or reminded incessantly. I thought I was hot stuff. I went to my mom and proudly announced, "I did all of my chores today." She looked at me with a blank expression and said, "And? That's nice but I'm not going to reward you for doing what you are supposed to do."

On another occasion, I auditioned for a play and did not get the lead role. I was crestfallen. After consoling me, my mother gave me my plan of action. "So you didn't get the lead role," she said. "You did get a nice sized role though and that's great. Now you make sure you play that role to the best of your ability and maybe next year, you'll get the lead."

She didn't go to school and argue with the teacher that made the decision. She didn't argue with the mom of the girl who did. She explained that even when we don't get what we want, we have to do the best that we can with it. Failure, in my parents' eyes should make us work that much harder. What did that other girl have that I didn't? What can I do to be better? How can I improve so that next year, I have a fighting change.

After several rehearsals I realized she was a darn good actress. She also had a much better voice than I did and this was a musical. I wasn't the lead but I understood why. Still, I took Mom's advice, but I made an impact in every scene I had (I even stole a few). I never got the lead in a musical, but a few years later, I did get a leading role.

There were other times when I probably should have gotten a role or something else I worked for. When I would complain about the unfairness of it all or why I deserved what I didn't get, my Dad would agree. "You are right," he'd say - immediately making me feel better. "It isn't fair and you probably did deserve it but life isn't fair and you don't get everything you want or everything you work for. Keep it moving and eventually something will work out, but not if you just sit here and whine about it."

The moral of the story is that I grew up knowing that failure happens. Good self-esteem is born of successes and failures. You don't get everything you want all of the time. You don't get every job you apply for. Every guy or girl you like doesn't like you back. You don’t get every role you audition for.

Failure is nothing to fear. It's part of life and it doesn't define you. Failing a few times is a good thing, it means you are in the game. You'll never win if you sit on the sidelines and wait for the perfect opportunity. It certainly doesn't mean you're not good enough, smart enough or pretty enough. True elf-esteem comes from within and the belief that you are good enough when you win and when you lose.

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