3 Lessons On How Failure Breeds Success

Permission to fail is liberating. Here’s how to give people–and yourself–the freedom to fail, in order to succeed.

3 Lessons On How Failure Breeds Success
[Image: Flickr user Chris Martin]

Forget success–bring on the failure! Some good, old-fashioned disaster. Give it a whirl. It may feel unnatural and irresponsible at first, but for people whose jobs require creativity, permission to fail is really permission to succeed.


Usually the word “failure” equals “terminated.” Fail too much or fail in some colossal way and it’s time to pack up the office.

Ernest Hemingway referred to an empty page as the great white bull. With a blank page comes endless possibilities for creativity–not to mention endless opportunities to fail.

So why not eliminate the threat of failure? The endeavor would be incredibly liberating for the oh-so fragile creative ego. And it just might be the thing your brand, company, or government needs. Next thing you know, you will have nurtured a culture of risk-takers that care as much about the success of their workplace as you do. Here are a few lessons I’ve learned about failure over the years:

1. Motivating with fear is for dictators

People that want to solve problems in a new way have to get somewhere no one has been before. You’ve got to allow them to explore a hundred bad ideas in order to get to the good one. If you’re not open to hearing a bad idea, only ideas that are safe and bland will be presented.

Remember, you hired your people for their voices. If they are afraid to speak, it leads to an insecure voice, and clients or would-be clients can smell that fear. These people will ultimately never follow you into battle, even if you have snappy uniforms. Let them be free.

2. Elicit Permission to Fail

Don’t be gentle or unclear about it. Don’t simply imply it. Shout it loudly from the rafters. Get a tattoo. Make a wall of push-pins that spell it out if you have to. But make it clear far and wide: Fail!


The good news is that granting permission to fail doesn’t necessarily mean people will. It’s often quite the contrary.This permission, this blessing of impunity, is what the best minds want. And with it, they will deliver. Projects will be consumed with gusto. Bad ideas will flow and make room for the good stuff. Permission to fail is like saying, “I believe in you.”

So, who are these contrarians, these people that don’t actually fail when you ask them to? And how do you find them? It’s a self-selection process. Create a culture where risk-taking and boldness are championed and they will make themselves known.

3. Commit

Do not enter into this lightly or halfheartedly. People will fail, and when they do, it’s got to be taken in stride. Winning the war here is the end goal, not a few battles along the way.

Going back on your word is not an option, especially if it leads to disciplinary action. People will follow all sorts, but nobody trusts a wishy-washy leader.

In order to really champion failure with strength and conviction, you have to first grant yourself permission to fail.

Rob Palmer is the executive creative director of Doner Los Angeles. He is leading Doner’s aggressive West Coast growth charge in the entertainment and content capital of the world.