It seems like everywhere we turn we’re being told to “embrace failure.” From social media to countless business books and articles and the global failure conference FailCon, the importance of mistakes is lauded as a key stepping-stone for success.
Even advertisers are realizing the power of bragging about getting it wrong. For example, earlier this year Domino’s commercials touted that at their company “failure is an option” with a nod to its failed cookie pizza of 2007.
Despite all the failure-embracing saturation we’re seeing these days, this concept is nothing new. Iterations of “embrace failure” have existed long before the slogan was popular. Before the likes of Steve Jobs and Richard Branson told us to embrace failure, Michael Jordan told us that he fails over and over again. Before that Truman Capote said failure was “the condiment that gives success its flavor.” And before that James Joyce dubbed mistakes “portals of discovery.” Thomas Edison, Abraham Lincoln, Henry Ford–the list of innovators that used failure to get at their success goes on and on and on.
So why the apparent resurgence? More importantly, what does embracing failure really mean, does it work, and at what point is it too much?
In an effort to find the answers, we consulted a few experts who know a thing or two about failure.
Global producer and FailCon cofounder Cass Phillipps remembers a time when there wasn’t even a whisper of “embrace failure.” In 2009 she and Diane Loviglio devised a one-day conference for startups to study their own and each others’s failures. The conference was the first of its kind, but not surprising considering the economic climate at the time.
“We were all failing, we had all made mistakes, and we couldn’t run from it anymore,” Phillipps says. “Everyone knew things had gotten harder, and so those rose-colored glasses were pretty cracked.”
Thought leaders began pushing for more open discussion of why we were failing, Phillipps says, to prevent it from happening again.
“I believe that (the embrace failure movement has) taken off because it taps into a widespread sense that we, as individuals, teams, organizations, and even societies, live in an era where we cannot always get things right the first time, no matter how smart we are or how carefully we plan,” says Anjali Sastry.
Sastry is a lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management and in the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School, and author of Fail Better: Design Smart Mistakes and Succeed Sooner.
She believes that with the advent of social media, it became easier to share our own stories of defeat, and the complexity of our current social, economic, population, and environmental systems makes it impossible to predict and analyze the future.
“Mistakes will be made–in research labs, management consulting teams, C-suites, factory floors, farms, hospitals, school systems, government offices, supermarkets, and elsewhere,” she says. “So figuring out how to learn from failure is more important than ever before.”
Karissa Thacker, a business psychologist who has consulted with major brands like UPS, Ford Motor Company, and Best Buy, believes the embrace failure culture is popular now more than ever because business success in both large and small companies requires a higher level of risk than during the heart of the Industrial Age. “Whole markets can be captured overnight,” she says, citing Samsung’s quick rise to power within Apple’s realm of smartphone domination.
“Continual experimentation is the new normal,” she says. “With risk comes failure. You cannot elevate the level of risk taking without helping people make sense of failure, and to some extent, feel safe with failure.”
Michael A. Roberto, trustee professor of management at Bryant University, sees the trend as a rebuttal to today’s work environment. “A backlash has emerged because so many corporate cultures have become so intolerant of experimentation, and people have become so afraid to fail that they have become reluctant to try new things.”
Sastry says the notion of failure in the pursuit of a career objective is something that first began to emerge with the advent of the scientific revolution. Some of our most admired innovators like Thomas Edison advocated going beyond acceptance of failure to embracing it, she says. But she wonders if Edison would be hailed a success in today’s corporate culture–during his career Edison lost a ton of money in his pursuit of ideas that never came to fruition.
Timothy J. Bono, an assistant dean in psychology at Washington University, says that those who publicly fail–and especially those who do so gracefully–are deemed more likable. He cites Jennifer Lawrence tripping at the Oscars and Hillary Clinton crying on the campaign trail during the 2008 presidential election as examples.
As part of what psychologists call the pratfall effect, when someone we perceive as competent makes a mistake, we often like that person more because it shows they are human, too, Bono says.
He also says failure works more for people who focus on the process rather than the outcome. These people, he says, tend to remain motivated in the face of challenging work and are more likely to persevere on future tasks.
Failing at a young age helps, too. Bono says that adults who had to overcome a moderate level of adversity while growing up have been found to have the greatest outcomes later in life. This is because they learned from a young age how to engage their social support networks and develop the coping mechanisms that are necessary to negotiate life’s challenges. “Developing these skills early on comes in handy for bouncing back from later hardships,” he says.
How an individual responds to failure and other setbacks has significant implications, as well. “The happiest people are often those who have learned how to fail,” Bono says. “They’ve learned how to pick themselves back up after being knocked down, reflect on the experience, grow from it, and soldier on.”
The net result, according to Bono, is that people are paying more and more attention to the process instead of just the outcome. “When you take a systematic look at the process that has led many to their success, we see that one of the common elements among them is the resilience they exhibited when things weren’t going their way,” he says.
The key question we must ask ourselves, according Roberto, is if we are learning from our failures and designing better tests to move forward.
Not all failures are the same, he argues. “Some experiments are well-designed and well-conceived . . . others are sloppy. We shouldn’t tolerate sloppy testing and experimentation failures. We should tolerate failures that come from a well-designed, iterative process of experimentation and prototyping.”
While there can be several benefits from taking risks, the potential consequences may be off-putting.
The challenge managers face is how to encourage risk taking and innovation without actually incentivizing the wrong outcomes, says Mel Fugate, associate professor of management and organizations in the Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University.
Fugate says the successful embrace of failure in the workplace not only requires a change in how performance is defined and rewarded with policies and practices, but it also requires a radical mindset change for many.
“Frankly, relatively few of our organizations and leaders are willing, and that is assuming they are able,” he says. “But in the same vein, what this means is that the rewards will be greatest for those that are willing and able to embrace failure and innovate.”
It’s all about the calculation of risk, Thacker says. There are several zero-mistake environments where you would not want everyone to embrace of failure, like the airline industry, military, or nuclear power plants.
While Thacker believes we are far from saturation in terms of people really learning how to take risks, learn from failure, and take more intelligent action, she says she hopes the trend continues as long as it’s clear that embracing failure is about making intelligent decisions.
In the end, failure by itself is not something anyone wants. It’s the success that follows failure that we all seek. So, failure should be embraced only if it enables even better success. We need to add some criteria to define the good failures that teach or reveal something important and discourage those that are simply dumb.
But does the overuse of embracing failure threaten to turn the idea into a cliché? Career and education coach Rebecca “Kiki” Weingarten believes it does. “We don’t want to set ourselves up to be a failure society where it’s all wonderful and everyone will now get a trophy or kudos for failing in the way they were getting them for trying or just showing up,” she says.
Roberto too thinks the phrase is overused without much meaning to back it up. He says he hears executives say that it is okay to fail in their organization, but when asked for an example of this actually happening, they fall silent.
“Yes, failure is part of entrepreneurship . . . but we still need to be careful about not just labeling all failures as equally ‘useful,’” he says. “Some are true learning opportunities born of a disciplined innovation and experimentation process; others are the outcomes of very poor decision making.”