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You really can learn as much from failure as you do success

It took Thomas Edison 1,000 attempts before he invented the light bulb.

You really can learn as much from failure as you do success
[Photos: Jack Carter/Unsplash; Wikimedia Commons/Library of Congress]

Without failure, some of the world’s greatest inventions, discoveries,  and products would not benefit society today. There are numerous examples of inventors, explorers and leaders who failed multiple times before attaining success and changing the course of history. 

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One of the most famous is Thomas Edison, credited with inventing the carbon telephone transmitter, light bulb, and phonograph. In fact, it took 1,000 unsuccessful attempts before he created the first light bulb. According to Edison, “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.” He did not give up and continued to persevere and learn, blazing a trail with life-changing inventions and paving the way for others.

Indeed, the lessons learned from failure often can be leveraged for success. Here are five things leaders can learn when they try, try again:

Importance of Failing Fast

With a fail-fast mentality, there is little time to dwell on mistakes or play the blame game, which can be a drag on morale, innovation, and creativity. Successful leaders understand that failures are opportunities for companies to learn, grow, and move forward in a quick manner that supports improved performance. With a fail-fast philosophy, leaders and their companies will experience the freedom to make and learn from mistakes, helping them to achieve their full potential for long-term success.

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Stepping Stones to Success

Savvy business leaders understand that failures are not only commonplace, but they also serve as critical stepping stones to success. For the most part, it’s rare to hit a home run right off the bat. Product development typically goes through numerous trial-and-error processes. Elite athletes continually readjust their techniques and training regimens before achieving that record-setting year. They view setbacks as building blocks that help to improve their performance. It is important for leaders to view failures in a positive manner, as a series of stepping stones that lead to success.            

Shaking Up the Status Quo

Many times, leaders can get bogged down in their own way of thinking and be resistant to new ideas. However, failure can be a sign that the way things are being done is not working, so it is a force that can shake up the status quo. The familiar quote, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results,” supports this notion of a need to embrace change. Failure might be the easiest avenue for even the most strong-willed leaders to adopt a growth mindset and identify ways to evolve and change. By looking at the reasons why something failed, leaders can make decisions about alternate methods/solutions that can lead to success. Without failures, leaders and companies may be content with the status quo and leave numerous opportunities for growth on the table for the competition.      


Related: You’re not a failure

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Avenues to Build Experiences

Failures are actually blessings in disguise because the experiences willinform future decision-making. The way leaders respond to failures not only helps develop their leadership skills, but it also encourages creative thinking. Leaders who have been involved in crisis situations are more likely to remain calm and level-headed if/when another one occurs because they have previous experience to rely on. When leaders have a solid base of experiences, they have more confidence to step outside of their comfort zones. In effect, handling failures provides valuable on-the-job learning/training that creates a knowledge bank to draw upon in the future.    

Contributors to Humility

There is nothing more humbling than failure, no matter the circumstances. Failure plays a contributing role in helping business leaders remain humble and keep their egos in check. Success can breed a feeling of invincibility, superiority. and greed, which has led to downfall for many. Leaders with a Midas-touch mentality and a series of successes might make poor decisions because they think everything they touch will turn to gold. However, leaders who have experienced failures are less likely to let success go to their head because they know things can change at any time. They are also more grounded and realize they are only human, so when failures occur there is less of an impact, along with a quicker recovery. While it may not be readily apparent, failure is a key contributor to humility, which is an essential characteristic of top-performing leaders.


Larry Shaffer is the senior vice president of marketing and business development at Insperity, a leading provider of scalable HR solutions.  

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