Lessons in failure

You haven't really failed if you haven't stopped trying, writes Gary Goodwin

Gary Goodwin

The mythological phoenix rose from the ashes every 500 years. Did that mean it failed every time before that?

I don't know about you, but I hate failing at anything. Lately, management gurus suggest that failing is a good learning tool; a mythology seems to have infused failure such that we should embrace it at every possibility. But learning to love failing simply does not appear to be a successful strategy.

Barings Bank failed 25 years ago when rogue trader Nick Leeson conducted a series of unauthorized arbitrage trades and eventually caused a loss of US$1.4 billion. Since this resulted in Barings’ collapse, we are not sure if the merchant bank had an opportunity to learn from this failure.

Leeson was sentenced to six years in prison and got divorced. That sounds like real failure, but he must have learned something since he got remarried and wrote two books, one of which was made into a movie starring Ewan McGregor.

So real failure suggests someone or something being unwilling or unable to try again.

There are many instances of famous people who appeared to have failed. Edison apparently tried several thousands of filaments before finding one that would last. You could say that he failed several thousand times, but if we pull back and simply state that his objective was to create a working lightbulb, then of course he succeeded. Eventually.

Real failures litter history. In 1453, during the siege of Constantinople, the entrenched Byzantines left a gate unlocked, allowing the invading Turks to pour in and crush the Byzantine empire. My mother constantly told me to close the front door to keep the heat in. She never once told me to lock the door to keep invading hordes out. But that was a real failure -- not letting the heat out but rather letting the hordes in.

We should further isolate another category: mistakes. In 2000, Blockbuster passed up on buying Netflix for US$50 million. Netflix’s 2018 market value totaled more than US$187 billion. A lost opportunity can be seen as a mistake. A lawyer’s greatest mistake in a nightmare could be missing that limitation date for that insurance file, but mine still involves running through the airport. (There are always other disconcerting things happening when one is running through an airport during a dream, but we will leave that aside.)

If your strategy appears to have failed and you try a new strategy to achieve a goal, then you haven't failed at achieving your goal. You simply learned that your initial approach to achieving your goal would not work, so you tried something different.

So perhaps instead of discussing failure, if the main goal is still achievable we might recharacterize these little incidents as setbacks.

These setbacks then provide you with the same opportunity to advance. A real failure rarely provides an opportunity to recover. Think of the Titanic, for instance. Its owner, White Star Line, managed to carry on until the government compelled the British shipping company to merge with Cunard Line, which is now owned by Carnival. Here we see the phoenix revival.

With setbacks you have the opportunity to apply some your learnings, and a short list of these could include:

Experience. What does not kill you only makes you stronger. You can become a greater force in the courtroom with greater experience.

Knowledge. This is a great opportunity for experiential and applied learning. The pan handle is hot, wear gloves. Walk into the courtroom unprepared, prepare to be roasted.

Resilience. “Dr.” Lucy of Peanuts fame told us that adversity is good since it helps us face even more adversity. Seeing legal articling through this setback lens provides another perspective.

Growth. “Life is pain, highness. Anyone that says different is selling something.” A bit of sage advice from The Princess Bride, but once you accept this bit of wisdom possibilities open up. “Nobody said it was going to be fun. At least nobody said it to me,” is more sage advice from The Big Chill. Best movie ever.

Prepare for setbacks. This is not as pithy as “fail often and quickly,” but try not to enter into setbacks where there is little or no chance of recovery. In Apollo 13, the character playing NASA flight director Gene Kranz says that failure is not an option. Even if he only said that in the movie, it is a great line. The results would have been quite different if he advocated the “fail often and quickly” line of thinking.

Learn to prioritize your frogs. Mark Twain once said that “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And If it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.” Tackle your biggest challenge, or problem, first so that the worst is over with.

So even after a major setback, if you pick yourself up and try again, then you haven't really failed since you haven't stopped trying.

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