Failing forward: The foundation for success

No one likes to fail. Absolutely, no one!

At first blush, failure may seem like a ton of wasted time, energy and material resources in engagements that yield no value whatsoever. People also tend to perceive failure as a result of character deficits, feeble efforts, unreasonable goals, poor planning and execution, or sheer bad luck.

While it is true that these factors are plausible causes and effects of failure; not many people, however, see failure as stepping stones or opportunities for growth. Consequently, the fear of failure becomes the central focus of their mind, so deeply ingrained at times, that they constantly seek to follow the path of least resistance – the obvious and safest path. They become pathologically addicted to certainty; constantly waiting for that moment when they are fully prepared and 100% assured of their success. And in a world like ours, ravelled in so much uncertainties, these people become so stifled by this irrepressible fear that they increasingly avoid new challenges: they stop daring greatly, taking bold and creative steps, undertaking new ventures, and in dire cases, they let many opportunities pass them by without flinching – a state of hopeless inaction – which left uninhibited, roller-coasters into more colossal and definitive forms of failure. As famous Harry Potter author, J.K. Rowling puts it,

“It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.”

Perfection is pure fiction and every successful person knows it. Most, if not all of them, have experienced some form of failure in their lives. These events that truly challenge us yield the greatest opportunities for growth – both as individuals and as companies. No attempt at innovative or grand achievements is without a chance of failure. However, failure is not a bad thing entirely, and sometimes, it might be exactly what you need to make meaningful progress. Failure offers you the opportunity to learn from your mistakes, reflect on them, optimize your strategy, gain clarity and rebound stronger. Failure also cultivates humility, resilience, adaptability and courage. As John C. Maxwell says,

“Sometimes we win, sometimes we learn. We never lose.”

The idea that one should not be afraid to fail does not undermine the need for proper planning and preparation. We don’t purposefully strive for failure – and in fact, we should do everything in our strategic power to avoid this. There is no honour in poor preparation. Failing forward, or what some thought leaders call intelligent failure, implies that even after our best efforts go awry, we preserve anyway, evolve, re-strategize and try again faster.

Therefore, in some areas – particularly where the principles of success are well-established and such domain are neither novel nor innovative – there may be no excuses for failures. As an example, provided that a student does not suffer from any peculiar challenges or vulnerabilities, all things being equal, there is no reason why he/she should fail in his exams. The governing rule in this domain is clear: if you don’t study hard, you will fail. Simple. In this regard, failure may not be excusable. However, in domains of uncertainty and/or intense competition – such as in entrepreneurship when pushing out an innovative product or in sports where athletes must strive valiantly for only one champion to emerge at the end – the prospect of failure must be evaluated and embraced. In the words of Thomas Edison and Wayne Gretzky – two legendary aficionados in the fields of entrepreneurship and sports respectively,

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” – Thomas Edison
“You’ll always miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” – Wayne Gretzky

This sort of resilience, grit and perseverance of effort reflects the soul 0f failing forward and is the hallmark of innovation, growth and high achievement – both in organisations and in our personal lives. Understanding that failure is but a momentary event, not a lifelong epidemic enables one to evaluate the risk involved in the pursuit of a goal by the value of the goal, and not by the fear it generates in you or the probability of your success. You also have to understand that failing in an activity does not make you a failure. It simply means what it means – which is, you failed in a single activity. Don’t define yourself in a negative aspect in the light of failure; it’s not personal.

And if you’re too comfortable with your situation and are succeeding in everything you do, you’re probably not pushing yourself hard enough – and perhaps you’re not growing. If at first you do succeed, try something harder; you probably have more capabilities than you know. Nothing worth achieving comes easily; so, you must step out of your comfort zone, push boundaries and never settle for the ordinary.

In conclusion, the road to success is paved with failure and to undertake the journey towards higher achievements, one must be prepared – both mentally and physically – for the challenges that may lie ahead. Let these 7 nuggets guide you:

  1. Change your perception of and response to failure
  2. Don’t choose to be average
  3. Believe in yourself and dare greatly
  4. Feel the fear, but take action now
  5. Fail early, fail forward
  6. Evolve
  7. Enjoy the journey


“Every adversity, every failure, every heartache carries with it the seed of an equal or greater benefit.” ― Napoleon Hill

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