For a dose of inspiration, we encourage you to look at this highlights package from a 2011 graduation address by Denzel Washington. Which made us wonder, are we embracing failure enough in our lives?
Failure gets a bad wrap. Beginning in childhood and continuing through to adulthood, we are encouraged to avoid failure. Overwhelmingly, failure is viewed as a negative experience. And it’s no wonder!
The definition of failure, according to Cambridge Dictionary, is “the fact of someone or something not succeeding”. It is positioned as the antithesis of success, something that is highly valued in our society. In fact, some of the related words and phrases suggested for failure are “bloodbath”, “flop” and “train wreck”, and this theme is consistent across all suggestions on that site.
What I didn’t see suggested were words and phrases like “growing”, “learning”, or “work in progress”. At Trak Search we love the concept of the growth mindset, which sees failure as an opportunity to learn and improve. Failure is not the end point, it’s one step in the road to achieving great things. Perhaps that is why Denzel’s clip resonated so strongly with us.
“You will fail at one point in your life. Accept it.”
This was Denzel’s first message about failure, and while it seems so blunt it is so empowering. In our society, too many of us are too scared of failing. We do all we can to avoid it because the fear of failure is ingrained into us from a young age.
How many of us have been discouraged from trying something because it’s ‘too hard’ or ‘too risky’? Or told inadvertently that others are more qualified as a way of suggesting it’s not worth our while? Innocent comments like “only people who do athletics outside of school have a chance of winning that sweetheart, why don’t you try the egg and spoon race instead?” Or “not many people get to be astronauts darling, you’d be better off dreaming about being a teacher/builder/lawyer”.
A fear of failure is often the reason people don’t put themselves forward for a role that they ‘may not’ get, a project they may not have explicit experience with, or in an industry that they have never worked in before. In most cases, the worst thing that can happen is they are unsuccessful for an opportunity that is likely not the best next step for them at that point in time. But even though there is very little to lose in real terms, the fear of embarrassment, loss of face or a dent in confidence is off putting for many.
Denzel also makes the point that so many people are told they should have “something to fall back on” in terms of a job or career that is seen as “safe” or “reliable”. This is very common from very well meaning family members and friends. It is also the reason many people talk themselves out of trying a new career path or taking a risk in an area of passion, particularly when it would impact pay or job security.
Denzel says in his speech that if he’s going to fall he doesn’t want to fall back on something, he wants to “fall forward”.
So rather than encouraging each other to avoid failure, what if we could accept that failure was an inevitable part of life? What if we could teach our children and each other to fail well and to learn from each failure?
Because, to Denzel’s second point about failure…
“If you don’t fail, you’re not trying.”
In our quest to avoid failure, we often avoid trying. We might avoid trying something new or something hard because that’s territory that always comes with a risk of failure. Sometimes we avoid trying even when the potential payoff would far outweigh the consequences of any failure.
Albert Einstein famously said that “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” The flip side of this, Denzel points out in his speech, is “To get something you never had, you have to do something you never did”.
There is safety in the status quo, and many people are comfortable to remain there. But for those who dream of something different because the status quo is not working, or is not fulfilling, then the opening line of this video can be your new mantra: “nothing in life is worthwhile unless you take risks”.
In business many people sit on great ideas, or play it safe when rolling out an initiative, or stick to ‘tried and true’ practices rather than trialling an innovative way of operating. And it is understandable. But imagine if we were all less risk-averse. Imagine the progress we could make!
Failure can be “the best way to figure out where you’re going”.
This is such a great idea, particularly in relation to career. Careers used all to be clear and linear. Once you joined a company or qualified in a skill, you could be fairly clear on the picture of your career until you retired. But that’s not how things work anymore. According to World Economic Forum, sixty-five percent of children entering primary school will hold a job that does not yet exist. Imagine the scale of change that is expected to come in a relatively short space of time!
It is imperative that we approach our career expecting that the path to retirement will not continue predictably in the same direction. Perhaps it will, but it is likely that there will be changes outside of our control that will force us to adapt and grow. There may also be opportunities too good to miss that force us to make a deviation from the chartered course.
Sometimes the learnings you get upon reflection in the aftermath of a ‘failure’ can help you to identify what your best next step should be. Even if it didn’t work out, maybe through trying you surprised yourself with a skill you didn’t realise you had, or received feedback that you would not have otherwise received, or discovered something you didn’t realise you would enjoy.
We have seen first-hand the experience people gain from a business venture that “didn’t work out”, or a foray into an industry that “wasn’t for them”. We always advise people to be clear on what they do want in their next step before stepping into a new role, rather than only focusing on escaping circumstances that have not worked out as expected. And often some reflection and soul searching on why things haven’t worked out can really help identify where to next.
Failure can be hard to experience at the time, and it is understandable that we would want to avoid any unnecessary heartache. However if we can adjust our mindset away from seeing failure as the dramatic equivalent of “bloodbath”, “flop” and “train wreck” and accept it as part of the inevitable journey to achieving success (according to our own definition of success), perhaps we will be more inclined to try new things. Maybe start by risking small failures, like a “Pinterest-fail” attempt at baking, or a half-marathon you need to walk, in order to discover that failure is not the end of the world.
And if you see your dream role on our site, don’t ever be afraid to give us a call. Even if there is a stronger applicant this time, that would never be a ‘failed’ application.
Take a look at this 12 minute clip of highlights from Denzel’s speech, courtesy of Motivation Madness:
Want to watch more educational content that we believe is worth checking out. Find them all here.