Posted by: Jess Scheve | April 14, 2011

Acknowledging the Importance of Failure

In trying to make the transition from student to professional, we constantly hear about how to be successful. Very rarely, however, does anyway tell us how to fail.

Yesterday I had the pleasure of meeting Becky Gaylord, owner of Gaylord LLC. Becky came to speak to one of the grad classes I’m in. She had a lot of wonderful advice for us, but one thing really stuck out to me:

“Failure is not only okay, it’s essential.”

Plenty of people talk about the importance of learning from one’s mistakes, but few people acknowledge how important failure is to our success. In 2006 Business Week wrote an article on How Failure Breeds Success. The article, which points out that failure is important to the innovation process, proves that failure is important not only to individuals, but also to businesses.

Additonally, some of the greatest inventions in the history of mankind were the result of “failures.” One of my favorite stories is that of George Crum who invented the potato chip. One day Crum, a chef, was making fried potatoes for one of the patrons at the restaurant he worked at.

Making your own potato chips!

Photo by Whitney Drake from Flikr.com

The customer sent the fried potatoes back to the kitchen, (more than once according to some versions of the story), claiming that they were too thick. Irritated with the persnickety customer, Mr. Crum sliced the potatoes as thin as possible and fried them until they were crunchy. Not only did the patron like chips, but other people did as well. Thus, the sinfully delicious, carb-loaded snack that tempts us from the glistening vending machine window, was born. If Crum hadn’t failed to please this customer, we might not have the potato chip.

The truth is, people like to avoid failure because it makes them feel uncomfortable – and if there’s one thing we hate, it’s feeling uncomfortable. Few people can bear the feeling of uncertainty that almost always accompanies failure. But as students and young professionals, we must be prepared for failure because it is a natural part of our transition.

So the next time you’re beating yourself up over what seems to be a huge, disappointing failure; try to take a step back and remember that it’s a part of your development. I know, easier said than done. But if you’re having trouble moving past failure check out eHow.com‘s article on How to Deal with Personal Failure.

Personally, I find Ms. Gaylord’s statement freeing in a way because I no longer have to look at failure in a negative light; I can look at it as a natural part of life, or better yet, an opportunity. Will I feel that way in the midst of the failure? Probably not. But fortunately Ms. Gaylord also advised us that resilience, like most activities, gets easier with practice.

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Responses

  1. Hi Jessica,

    Good insight on this important topic! From my perspective, the important thing to learn about failure and missteps is that they provide learning opportunities. Talk about feeling “uncomfortable,” most people are not analytical enough to really assess the outcomes of situations from a personal perspective — good or bad. So, it’s not just evaluating programs, decisions, etc., themselves, but one should also assess oneself in the process.

    • Thanks for the feedback Dr. Batchelor! You make a great point about analyzing the situation from a “personal perspective.” I think that we’re all so used to segmenting our lives into “business” or “personal” that we forget, in the end, development is development. We may try to put our professional failures into the “business” category, but ultimately all development is personal. Perhaps it’s better to say that it isn’t just failure that makes us uncomfortable, it’s anything that forces us to be self-reflexive. Why do you think it is that people tend to lack the ability to be analytical? Do you think that ego is the the primary cause, or is there more to it than that?

  2. Jessica, I enjoyed this post, and you definitely make great points. I’m quite the perfectionist, so when I mess something up it tears me a part. I dwell on it for days, especially when my mistake lets other people down. I’m harder on myself than anyone else could be. Maybe this is why my parents never really punished me…I punished myself enough! I am my own worst enemy.

    But at the same time, I am all about learning and becoming a better PR professional. And sometimes the best way to do that is to make mistakes. I know the mistakes I have made, I pay closer attention to them in the future to ensure I NEVER do it again. But rather than stress myself out about it, I will take your suggestion to step back and remember it’s a part of my development.

    An additional step we can take is to sit down and analyze the situation. Ask ourselves, how did this happen? And what can we do in the future to prevent it from happening?

    P.S. Maybe we would be better off without potato chips? Never! 🙂

    • Thanks for the feedback Jodee! You make an excellent point about analyzing the situation. I definitely believe in the importance of self-reflection because that’s the only way to learn from any mistake. I do think, however, that we have to approach this step cautiously, otherwise we could risk “beating ourselves up” over our failures. There can often be a fine line between self-reflection and self-deprecation. I guess we have to stay positive and be prepared to move on once we’ve learned our lesson. Personally, I haven’t mastered this yet at all – I have a bad habit of dwelling myself.

      As far as the potato chip is concerned…health concerns be damned! Life would be bland without them 😉


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