Harnessing the Hidden Power of Failure
I’m not the best gardener. The first year I decided to have a garden, I just threw everything I wanted to grow into some planter boxes that my father-in-law so graciously built for me. I watered, weeded, crossed my fingers, and waited to see what happened. No, I didn’t put tomato cages around the tomatoes, so we had tomato plants flopping all over the place, weighted heavy with their fruits (or vegetables, depending on whether they are cooked or not, apparently). The plants mostly crowded out the weeds that grew out of control by the end of the summer. I loved walking around inspecting the growth in my bare feet in the mornings, collecting fresh herbs for our morning breakfasts, and watching the progress happen right before my eyes. I wasn’t totally sure what I did, but I felt pretty good about the first effort. The next year, we had zucchini with a zillion nasty little black bugs boring holes into every leaf and squash available. Yuck. I wanted to quit the garden altogether that year; I used google and asked friends to problem-solve, but the squash that year were pretty sad. It would have been so easy to mark myself gardening failure and move on with life.
But the problem is, I wanted the fruits (and vegetables) of a garden, so I had to do the work and figure out how to fail forward. I had heard the term “failing forward” thrown around the personal development world here and there, but as I was thinking about this concept, I realized that I probably needed to do some research about the origin of this phrase. I landed on the book Failing Forward by John Maxwell. There may be a full review forthcoming, but the general idea is that you use failure to your advantage. Wait, that means I have to fail. No thank you. I’d rather just avoid failure and assume that everything I do will be a tremendous success. One of Maxwell’s principles that speaks to that is, “If at first you do succeed, try something harder.” Uh oh. In my fear of failure, having I been holding back? Have I been pursuing only those goals that seem safe and easily attainable? This challenge, along with encouragement from the 12 Week Year, has helped me to set stretch goals, goals that seem almost unattainable and will take considerable problem solving and work in order to accomplish.
Gardening has really helped me to embrace the concept of failing forward. I can easily see how no one expects every single seed will sprout, every plant will live, and every flower will bloom. Surely it isn’t failure if that happens. I am certainly not a failure because one of my plants died. And yet, aren’t we often so much harder on ourselves when our pet project at work just isn’t cutting it? When our kids aren’t perfectly happy? We are not failures because something we are working on fails. Maxwell says that people who fail forward know that failure is only temporary. If we have the opportunity to improve or do something over again, we use our failure to inform us. This is key. Please hear this LOUD and CLEAR: we must reflect on failure in order to use it to our advantage. We can’t run away from it. We can’t hide it. And we certainly can’t give up.
So my zucchini failure led me to some research where I found out that I need to catch the bugs earlier or else they are almost impossible to get rid of. Maybe we need to be monitoring our work projects and families more closely and asking the right questions so that we can catch problem areas before we have a full-blown infestation. Do people keep quitting your organization? Maybe you can build a system where you are checking in with people more frequently and intentionally to solve issues long before your employees want out. Check out this INC.com article for some thought-provoking questions you can consider to gauge employee job satisfaction.
Maybe failing forward means doing more research or checking out how others do things (why reinvent the wheel, right?). Maybe it means doing something completely differently next time. Maybe it means monitoring people and projects more closely. Maybe it means pulling your team together and problem-solving after a bump in the road. Maybe it means teaching other people how to do some activities that are dragging you down so that you can contribute more fully to your own highest value activities.
I am in new gardening territory once again, after having moved two years ago. My basil, which did well at our old house, is currently fighting for its life. The one plant left already buried three of its companions. I may end up with basil failure on my hands this year, but you can bet that I will be failing forward into better basil next year.
Has anyone else subconsciously been afraid of failure? What did you do with that knowledge? What have you done to fail forward? I’d love to hear your comments!