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Emma Sue Prince



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Personal development: Learn how to fail every day

The path to success is seldom smooth. The key to overcoming this is learning how to fail and get back up again. 

We need to fail each and every day to be at our best. When I think about how to live my life and what I want to do, I'm stunned by how often it can change. I'm stunned by how often, and how drastically I've changed. No matter how sudden it has seemed I know my life has never changed in a single huge, life defining moment. It's changed a little, every day, and a lot in the quiet seconds that tick by unmarked and unnoticed, but I've never experienced a moment of clarity on a mountaintop.

Unfortunately, because we fear it so much, the fear of failure itself causes procrastination, avoidance behaviour, overwhelm and inaction.

I also know, however, that it’s in taking risks and doing things I did not initially think I could do and making mistakes as a result that I’ve learned and gained the most.

Why do we need to fail every day?

Simply put, it’s because this is how we grow and learn in the fastest way. By making sure we fail every day, we will start to take more risks and realise that it’s ok. As a result we become more resilient.

The most successful people in life have failed the most times. We fail generally most days anyway if you think about it. I fail at communicating with those closest to me. I fail at listening more than I speak. I fail at making those around me feel like they are important and deserve my undivided attention when they are having a conversation with me. I fail at completing all the things I need to in a day. I am imperfect and always will be.

I also fail to get many of the bids I write for consultancy work, but if I didn’t write at least 30 a year I would not win the three or four that I do win. I’ve failed at making presentations and hated them. Now, I welcome the opportunity to present.

If I hadn’t experienced failure I’d have been too afraid to even think about having my own podcast, because of a fear of failure.

Unfortunately, because we fear it so much, the fear of failure itself causes procrastination, avoidance behaviour, overwhelm and inaction. There are many things we just don’t do because we are afraid that we will fail. The only way you can get over what fear causes is to get out there and fail.

Baby steps

Think about how a baby learns to walk – they’re not afraid, so that means fear of failure is a learned behaviour. As infants we would never learn to do anything if we didn’t have the ability to repeatedly go through the ‘try, fail, learn, adapt, try again’ cycle.

Babies have no experience-based evidence to draw on, so they will continually explore their world, experimenting freely, with no preconceived ideas about what the outcomes might be. They’ll repeat the ‘try, fail, learn, adapt, try again’ cycle until they get the results they want.

If we can accept that failing is all part of the path to success we can learn to fear it less. 

As we grow up, soaking up the evidence from our endeavours and experiences, we start to pre-empt how our experiments with the world around us are likely to turn out. We assess what is likely to work and what isn’t.

We begin to base our decisions on this reduced pool of likely outcomes, unwilling to let go of what we think will work, becoming more and more cautious about experimentation. We no longer try out different ways of doing things.

Professional failures

Surely there are professions like medicine, for example, where you literally cannot make mistakes? For me, there is a slight difference between failing and making professional mistakes in that regard.

Just like airline pilots and astronauts, who work on simulations, when doctors are being trained it’s critical for them to fail ‘on the ground’, so they can work through each and every one of those failures in every possible scenario. This minimises the potential for an actual mistake to occur.

Resilient people are passionate about and committed to their ‘why’. They focus their efforts on the things they have control over and let go of the things they don’t. 

Interestingly in these sorts of professions, once trained and practising, mistakes actually come from things like insufficient sleep, working long hours without good self-care, and a lack of communication.

To get better at failing we need to consider how we think of failure. What does the word ‘failure’ conjure up for you? Does it mean utter disaster or just ‘not yet the desired result’?

I love the acronym, F.A.I.L – ‘first attempt in learning’. Ok, it might be your second, third or hundredth attempt, but the sentiment works just the same.

If we can accept that failing is all part of the path to success we can learn to fear it less. Therefore, there are three things you can do.

1. Expect failure as part of progress

Many of us fear uncertainty in life. We can’t cope with not knowing how things are going to turn out. We need to get better at acceptance. We get better at that by saying ‘yes’ more – in our workshops we actually do this as an exercise so that people can feel the physical and psychological impact of saying yes – it’s very energising. I’m not suggesting that we all go around yelling ‘YES’ but it’s more a kind of inner yes at the current situation.

2. Develop resiliency

This is one of the seven skills and one we can certainly develop and cultivate. How do we ready ourselves to adapt and overcome it? By learning to embrace resilience and ‘fail forward’ of course!

  • You did all the research.
  • You planned and prepared.
  • You visualised the outcome you wanted.
  • You failed.

Enter that resilient mindset. In this mindset we can view life’s challenges as merely that – a challenge. An opportunity to learn from, adapt and grow. While our pride might take the odd knock, the resilient mindset blocks the full blown, knock out punch that failure could otherwise give you. You want to get up and fight another day, right?

Resilient people are passionate about and committed to their ‘why’. They focus their efforts on the things they have control over and let go of the things they don’t. They view setbacks as temporary and don’t allow a failure in one area to negatively impact everything else.

Coming back to my proposal example – one great thing about writing so many of them is that I get better and better at it, but I also soon noticed something – very often I’d be shortlisted and interviewed too and I’d really get my hopes up then. A knock-back at that point can be hard to take.

What I realised, however, is that when you are shortlisted it means they think you are all excellent, but the deciding factor may be more to do with small differences between the candidates, for example money, location, or the fact that someone has a personal connection and so there’s bias there.

As soon as I realised that, writing proposals became easier, I went for more and more ambitious ones and the rejection became like water off a duck’s back. As a result, I started to win some very interesting projects.

3. Create the right environment

If we are to learn and evolve from our failures we must be able to dissect them and unearth the lessons. They key is to create an environment where that’s possible. Matthew Syed explores this concept brilliantly in his book Black Box Thinking: Marginal Gains and the Secrets of High Performance. He explores the concept of how we reach success through being prepared to learn from our failures.

As his title suggests, he compares the transparent and self-scrutinising culture of the airline industry with the hugely egocentric and blame-oriented culture of the medical profession. While causing death through our failures thankfully isn’t something most of us have to face on a daily basis, we can learn a lot from examining the impact our environment has on our ability to try, fail, learn, adapt and try again.

Whether you’re alone or leading a large organisation, you must create an environment where failure can be openly explored, learned from and adaptations made. It’s in that space that the magic happens.

Interested in this topic? Read The SADEL leader: fostering a ‘fail fast learn faster’ culture.

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Emma Sue Prince


Read more from Emma Sue Prince

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