How to fail like a pro

We lost a pitch recently. It happens all the time in our business, so it’s no biggie. Even though we invested hours in research, preparation, presentation and travel, it comes with the territory. And it can even be a good thing.


As the parent of a Grade Two boy, and the husband of an elementary school teacher, I’ve been talking a lot to other parents and teachers how the move away from letting kids realize and accept their own failures has hurt their ability to be resourceful adults who take positive risks.

This was reinforced by an anecdote in a book I was reading about competitive memory games, that whether you’re looking at an elite athlete, artist or intellectual, what sets them apart from the average is their determination to constantly push their limits. They don’t endlessly repeat what they can do, they deliberately attempt things that they can’t do… yet. Think of the skater practising a seemingly unattainable jump, a guitarist obsessing over a flubbed lick, or a chess master replaying their last loss.

Only failure can teach us to improve. And it has far-reaching implications for the business world. Two years ago, The Harvard Business Review wrote about this difference as one between a “fixed” and a “growth” mindset:

According to Dr. Carol Dweck, professor at Stanford University, we have a mindset problem. Dweck has done a tremendous amount of research to understand what makes someone give up in the face of adversity versus strive to overcome it.

It turns out the answer is deceptively simple. It’s all in your head.

If you believe that your talents are inborn or fixed, then you will try to avoid failure at all costs because failure is proof of your limitation. People with a fixed mindset like to solve the same problems over and over again. It reinforces their sense of competence.

Children with fixed mindsets would rather redo an easy jigsaw puzzle than try a harder one. Students with fixed mindsets would rather not learn new languages. CEOs with fixed mindsets will surround themselves with people who agree with them. They feel smart when they get it right.

But if you believe your talent grows with persistence and effort, then you seek failure as an opportunity to improve. People with a growth mindset feel smart when they’re learning, not when they’re flawless.

In other words, letting people get the reward of accomplishment without earning it makes them lazy. With an overblown sense of entitlement. And an inability to take criticism. Sound like anyone you know?

There is a better way, however, even at the adult stage. The Wall Street Journal published an article titled “Better Ideas Through Failure” that showed how some really progressive companies are encouraging employees to take smart risks, and backing them up even through failure.

“Failure, and how companies deal with failure, is a very big part of innovation,” says Judy Estrin of Menlo Park, Calif., a founder of seven high-tech companies and author of a book on innovation. Failures caused by sloppiness or laziness are bad. But “if employees try something that was worth trying and fail, and if they are open about it, and if they learn from that failure, that is a good thing.”

The article later gives this observation, which rings true with anyone who has a creative mind:

Many people succeed at producing innovations because they churn out a very large number of ideas, both good and bad, says Dean Keith Simonton, a psychology professor at the University of California, Davis. “The most successful people tend to be those with the most failures.”

We learned a lot at that pitch. It allowed us to pilot a new presentation format, and provided invaluable training and experience to an up-and-coming Account Manager. The feedback we got on the content of the pitch (we lost for other reasons) will help us nail it next time.

Or not. But at least we keep learning. And there’s nothing more you can ask of life than to be given the hard-won opportunity to keep improving yourself.

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