Flirting with FailureWe’ve all done it at one time or another: we’ve taken on something that we couldn’t handle. Whether it’s a project that’s too large, an extra job we didn’t have time for or a relationship that blew up in our face, this kind of failure is very human and very common.
It’s also something you can learn from. The truth is that people make mistakes. But if you think of failure not as a finality, but as a just another part of life, you can use the experience to improve yourself and your business instead of letting it get you down.
It’s all about your mindset.
Dealing with Failure and Frustration
Some people, when confronted by the kind of failure that comes from overextending yourself, become frustrated and give up. Especially in client services, where overextending yourself can have real-world consequences: a failure may mean you’ve wasted a client’s time and money, you actually lost some of your own money on a project, you disappointed a client, or the project didn’t get finished.
Or all of the above.
This can be very disheartening. But don’t be ashamed because you are getting to know your limitations, and that’s also a good thing. It’s a learning experience.
Happiness is a Glass Half Empty
In a recent article for the Guardian, Oliver Burkeman starts to discuss failure by telling us about The Museum of Failed Products, a little showcase in Ann Arbor, Michigan where consumer products go to die:
“This is consumer capitalism’s graveyard – the shadow side to the relentlessly upbeat, success-focused culture of modern marketing. Or to put it less grandly: it’s almost certainly the only place on the planet where you’ll find Clairol’s A Touch of Yogurt shampoo alongside Gillette’s equally unpopular For Oily Hair Only, a few feet from a now-empty bottle of Pepsi AM Breakfast Cola (born 1989; died 1990).”
After this apropos introduction, Burkeman goes on to analyze the modern obsession with positive thinking. I suggest reading the article yourself, but for our purposes today we can focus on his conclusion:
“To fully embrace the experience of failure, not merely to tolerate it as a stepping stone to glory, is to abandon this constant straining never to put a foot wrong – and to relax.”
In this view, not only is failure a natural part of life that should be embraced as an experience in and of itself, but dwelling on failure is a sure way to lock up our creative potential and keep us down.
Yes, we can learn from failure. But more importantly, we should get into the habit of accepting it as a part of life. Failure should not lead to frustration—only, perhaps, to an effort to do better the next time around.
Embracing Failure in Your Business
Let me show you the bright side of failure and how it can be used to build your business instead of destroying it.
We know that failure is practically inevitable—now, instead of trying to avoid it, let’s embrace those failures, analyze them, and use the takeaways to improve your business.
- Find your limitations. Look at the last time you failed at something. Find the point at which things fell apart. Now you know the furthest limitation of your resources. For example, say you went 20 hours over budget on a project. Find the point at which things started to go off track. Did the client require too many iterations to be satisfied? Did your designer take more time than he budgeted? Did you run into a hiccup in the development? Did the project stall because of a delayed feedback loop? Find the point of failure and work on reinforcing it so that it doesn’t fail next time.
- Experience equals practice over time. Experience comes with time and with practice. There truly is no substitute, no amount of education, nothing you can buy that can ever replace practical experience. Take five minutes to go over your last project, make a list of what you learned, and post it up on the wall as a reminder to yourself for the duration of your next project. Do this for every project. You’ll get better each time.
- Better estimates in the future. Look, estimates are called what they are because they’re not an exact science. And new things come up all the time in projects to throw things off track. That’s OK. You have to be adaptable. However, over time you’ll have a better idea how to estimate budgets and timetables. Again, apply the lessons from the last project to the next one.
- Experiment. If you’re going to fail occasionally anyways, why not use your time to experiment? You’re never going to find that “perfect” project to run your new ideas. Run them whenever you get a chance. If they don’t work, OK, move on. If they succeed even once, though, it justifies all your past failures. Experimentation moves the whole industry forward—you owe it to yourself and to your community to take these chances.
It’s my hope that you can shift your mindset to one that welcomes and accepts failure as a part of the process. Client services can be stressful when there is so much on the line, but if you let the possibility of failure paralyze you, you’ll never be able to move forward, and that mindset will keep you from doing what you love.
“Failure is everywhere. It’s just that most of the time we’d rather avoid confronting that fact.”
Don’t be afraid to confront it. All hard things require a bit of courage. Failure is no exception.
How do you personally deal with failure? What has it taken to get into the mindset where failure doesn’t paralyze your continued work?