I like to think of failure as an art. Because if done correctly, failure can be our greatest teacher. People also need to be given the space to fail. Space to embrace failure and to learn from it. We spend way too much time trying to avoid failure. We treat failure like an ugly, shameful act. We see it as the opposite of success. When doing nothing is the opposite of success. Failure is just another outcome of trying. And it can teach us so much on our journey in life.
Think back to when you were a child. Young and curious, excited to try things. What would happen if you didn’t get it right the first time? Did you have a parent, grandparent, sibling, or other loved one there as you tried new things? Did they encourage you to keep trying? Did they create a safe space for you to fail? Did this safety net allow you to learn from your failures?
There was an art to failure as a child. We were safe to try things, get them wrong, and try again. Nobody pressured us to have the answers and do it right the first time.
After all, we were just kids, and kids got to play experiment, and be given the grace to fail and learn. As we got older, things began to change. Our safety net shrunk, and we feared taking risks without guaranteeing success. School got harder; college was more serious, and jobs became demanding with even more pressure. As we grew, so did the stakes of getting it wrong the first time. Suddenly, a cost was associated with failure. And so, we raised expectations of ourselves to avoid that cost.
We also started paying attention to what society defined as success. That rarely included the try, fail, try again method from childhood. It usually included tangible things like money, cars, impressive jobs, or milestones such as a marriage and/or children. Success focused more on the destination – and reaching it as fast as possible rather than celebrating a bumpy learning journey. Society’s depiction of success has a lot of different standards – many of them are unattainable and unrealistic. There is no room for error if you want to be successful by society’s standards.
So, failure becomes a barrier to success. It slows the process. It becomes the enemy. But failure is not an enemy. Failure is still a beautiful learning lesson from our childhood. Failure is an art and a necessity for success. I want to tell you how the fear of failure brought me to a perceived success and how I left it all behind to pursue failure as an art.
That wasn’t my story a few years ago. Back then, I was an executive leader. I was in one of three master’s programs. I was raising my kids on my own. I was patting myself on the back for all my accomplishments. In my mind, I was doing more than the average person and yielding higher-than-average results. But I was clueless.
Previously, I had been given a space to experiment, design, and test large-scale work. Like the safe space we remember as children – but with grown-up ideas- I liked it and was good at it. But this new space expected results all the time. I had a team that supported me. And they had teams. How would it look if I didn’t have space to fail? I tried as hard as I could to give them the space that I believed was important- to try, learn, and try again. But when I had unrealistic timelines and stresses, I passed them down to them, too. When I hadn’t checked my high expectations at the door, I imposed them on my team. And that behavior carried itself down the line.
If I had my name on something and it failed, I was often asked for explanations. I was asked who on my team was responsible and what I would do about it. Failure became a barrier to my success. I tried everything I could to avoid failure. I gave it no space in my life. I avoided relationships outside my work or school because I was convinced they would fail due to my busy life. I was miserable, and so were plenty of others around me. But on the outside- I looked like a success to many. And by society’s standards, I was a success.
When I realized I was living a double life by still working in a situation that contradicted my values, I left. I knew I could fail big, and failure had huge consequences. But I also knew my entire being relied on me living out my values.
I put 100% of my time into my first business six months after I started it. I had no guarantees, but I felt peace and a safe space to try, fail, and try again. Surprisingly, I had a large network of people willing to help.
Today looks very different than where I was just a few years ago. I will say I have had many failures. However, I have surrounded myself with others who offer great support. My quest for perfection is long gone. I wish I had figured that out before attending three master’s programs. Luckily, I only graduated from one. I am also happily married, and I practice the art of failure in that dynamic as well. I welcome failure daily. To me, that means I am living! I am trying things. I am growing, and I am thriving.
Four key components to my art of failing continue to serve me well.
1. Prepare, don’t control
I go into every situation knowing there is a chance for failure. It is my acceptance. I don’t try to anticipate the failure or control the outcome. I remind myself that I may not be 100% successful. If my failure will impact others (a client or a partner), we discuss what a potential failure will look like and plan for that. Sometimes, it is a contingency plan for a timeline being extended. Sometimes, I am not able to make dinner as planned.
When I miss a deadline, dinner, or something else I perceive as “failed,” I address it now. I acknowledge the emotion at the moment, whether it is frustration or disappointment, and validate it. Sometimes, that is all I have time for at the moment.
I know that things do not go according to plan. I ask myself why. I separate what is in my control to do differently and what is out of control. For example- if a timeline is delayed because a natural disaster shuts everything down – there is not much in anyone’s control. I acknowledge it and move on. Things I can control- I brainstorm and get creative! I have fun with trying out different ways of doing things. I have a deeply analytical mind, so I see this practice like the scientific method or PDSA, for those improvement folk out there.
Tiffany Grandchamp Melnik is the Founder of Women Lifting Women. Her passion for helping women and for equal pay runs blood deep. Tiffany raised three children as a single mother and has experienced the inequities of women in the workplace, stereotyping, and discrimination. Her experiences shaped her educational choices, career path, and, ultimately, the companies she launched. Tiffany spends her time advocating for women, helping companies analyze equity data and re-write policies, writing, coaching, and training leaders, traveling, and spending time with her family.