Failing Forward

By Bob Hampe

Like all other humans, I’d bet you can point to a time or two when things didn’t go according to plan—when, despite your best intentions, a piece of software crashed, a critical delivery was late, or your client called with a huge problem just as you were boarding a nine-hour trans-Atlantic flight. Things happen, and sometimes those things—let’s just call them “failures”—force us to navigate new ground and readjust.

In a recent blog, my friend Seth Godin wrote about “stupid” mistakes:  

There are mistakes. These are moments when reality teaches us something. And there’s stupid. This is what happens when we refuse to learn from our mistakes. “Don’t be stupid” is a fine mantra. It’s particularly apt when talking about cultural forces, political agendas and our thoughtless impulses. It’s also useful to remember to “make productive and generous mistakes.” And to learn from them.

Put simply, it’s rare that a path to a goal doesn’t go through the valley of failure. And that’s why part of my philosophy is removing the shame and stigma around “failure.” Once we can level with one another, stop the bluster and own up to mistakes, we can build better workplaces and a better future.

Failure is Not a Four-Letter Word

Our society loves to equate success with inherent self-worth. So naturally, when the road is bumpy or things don’t go according to plan, we have a tendency to blame ourselves and question our self-worth. We’ve all, with a resentful edge in our voices, used the expression “failing forward” to describe people who, despite numerous setbacks, seem to land on their feet and succeed. 

And sure, it offends us when people who can’t seem to get it right—the forward-failers—still reap the benefits of success that often elude us. 

Well, it’s my argument that we all fail forward—if we’re honest enough to own up to it. How arrogant to believe, especially as a leader, that every choice I have made through my entire career, for example, has been 100% by design or, better yet, that I anticipated every single setback that came my way. 

That’s our individualist culture talking. When we do fail, our inherent shame around “failure” leads us to pass the buck as far away from us as we can get it. For leaders, that means pointing down to the workforce. For workers, it means pointing at each other. And in the absence of someone else to blame, we’ll often point to project management systems, the weather or Mercury in retrograde. 

But I ask you: What would happen if we took a pause and led with humility? What if we owned up to mistakes? How would that reshape our workplaces? I think we’d see a lot more functional teams, better products and less time wasted on finger-pointing. 

Let me reassure you, this is not a pet theory of mine. A study discussed in a Scientific American article contains this excellent kernel of truth: failure is an “essential prerequisite for success.” The study also conveyed the importance of not just failing, but of failing well. Failing well is characterized by learning from mistakes and not lingering on paths that are clearly going nowhere (in other words, fail fast—not slow!). Progression is key, but if we spend too much time pointing our fingers at one another and not identifying points of improvement, we’ll never gain control of the process, and we’ll keep repeating the same mistakes.

A New Perspective for a New Year

A new year, a new quarter, a new month—there’s no time like the present to change your personal relationship with “failure” and, by extension, how failure is treated in your family and work life. When we switch our mentality from finger-pointing to owning up, to celebrating the process instead of focusing only on outcomes, we’ll see a dramatic shift in happiness, productivity and progress. 

About Seth Godin
Seth is an entrepreneur, best-selling author, and speaker. In addition to launching one of the most popular blogs in the world, he has written 20 best-selling books, including The Dip, Linchpin, Purple Cow, Tribes, and What To Do When It’s Your Turn (And It’s Always Your Turn). His book, This is Marketing, was an instant bestseller in countries around the world. The latest book is The Practice, and creatives everywhere have made it a bestseller.