How do you fail well? Failure is a misunderstood word. During our formative years, it is given a negative connotation and conjures feelings of guilt and shame. As we grow older, we hear it in so many contexts that it becomes a convoluted buzzword. The negativity is reinforced, so much so that we take it personally; that “I am a failure,” and that it is lasting. Failure becomes something to avoid. Today, let’s learn how to fail well.

5 Steps On How To Fail Well

Failure at the most basic level is negative feedback. Feedback, whether positive or negative, is valuable information that can always be used to improve our decisions. The adage, there is no such thing as bad feedback, holds here. It may not always be correct feedback, but it leads you down a different thought process to analyze a variety of options.

fail well, a cycle of how to fail well

Do: In my earlier article, I wrote about the importance of intention. The intention is the action, no matter how small, that helps our passions become reality and drives us towards our chosen path. We sit in our offices or our homes and figure out where we want to be and the thing we must do to get there. Intentional action is the pillar upon which all of our goals are built. 

READ MORE: Find Purpose In Your Life

Feedback: Positive feedback is truly wonderful! You take intentional action, and the goal is achieved. You are filled with feelings of pride and bliss at your impeccable planning and execution. Negative feedback, however, punches you in the stomach. You hit a roadblock, you feel regret for taking the bold action, and time was wasted. The feelings of guilt and shame resurface in full force at the thought of failures when you were a child, and you want nothing more but to get rid of this feeling. At this moment, the question “what next?” lingers in our minds.

fail well, women in a planning meeting

Rest: In the hustle culture, resting is often demonized. We are told to always go and never give up, early to rise, late to bed, sleep when you are dead. In my opinion, it is mostly terrible and dangerous advice. When you take that big scary step, whether it works or not, time for reflection is imperative. Taking time to accept the result, to process the emotions that came to the surface as a result, and to regain the emotional and mental energy to go again. The entire cycle is a challenging process, so be proud of yourself for taking the intentional step. Take a rest, and be gentle with yourself.

Think: So, what exactly happened there, and how can I improve it? Honest evaluation is the most difficult part of the process if you want to fail well. It is also the one that is most avoided. As a result, we do not fully realize the plethora of information we could have gained to improve our intentional action in the future. It calls for blunt honesty on parts of your intention and execution that did not work.

Congrats! Like a baby walking and falling on its cute little squishy face, or a project at work not getting the approval from your boss, you are closer to success. The negative feedback has invaluable information, but you will only realize it after you think about your actions. Ask those you trust and those more knowledgeable to point out where you can improve, and to give you guidance on the next steps. There is no guilt in taking the wrong action since it gives substantially more information than a reaction or inaction.

Do: Whether you got negative or positive feedback, going again is inevitable and essential. Did you get positive feedback? This a testament to your hard work and follow-through. Resting for a moment to be proud of your incremental accomplishment is well deserved, then we go again to build upon that success towards our purpose. Did you get negative feedback? We know we did our best, and it did not work this time. No worries. Rest a bit after attempting a new intentional step, and be proud of yourself for pushing yourself to grow.

To fail well requires that you use the information you gathered from self-assessment, the guidance you got from others, and you go do it again. With more information, a clearer idea of what to expect, and how to navigate the obstacles along the way, you are on your way!

How Does Vulnerability Help Us Fail Well?

fail well, a man at his computer with papers

Vulnerability: To fail well requires vulnerability. I learned this one from Walter. Walter is an inmate in Illinois and after he heard my above presentation, he pulled me aside and said: “Mr. Marlo that all sounds good, but what’s the magic that pulls it all together”? I had no idea what he meant or what he wanted, but he didn’t relent. The rest of the day, Walter and I discussed it, and at the end of the day during a live podcast recording, Walter and I figured it out. Vulnerability.

Vulnerability, in this sense, means taking a step in the process knowing it may not end as expected or will lead to negative feedback, but doing it anyway. Vulnerability is necessary at every step in the cycle: To start, to accept the feedback, to rest knowing the result, being honest with yourself about the part of your action that was, and most importantly, to take all the new found information, and do it again. Negative feedback is the biggest gift we have. We just need to embrace vulnerability enough to accept it.

So, although failure is often misunderstood there is a way to fail well. I hope this article helped you to accept failure as a gift. As Walter and I found out, vulnerability will help us through the process, and rather than saying to yourself, “I am a failure” we can use the negative feedback we receive and continue the cycle until we get optimal, or positive feedback.

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