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The New Year and a New Way To Look At Failure

Published on January 1, 2016 12:00 AM EST
The New Year and a New Way To Look At Failure

Perhaps it is human nature that around the first of each calendar year, we start to look at the results we achieved during the preceding year, and start to assess the new and upcoming year.  This personality imprint may, paleontologists share, may in factgo back to “caveman” days.

Did we kill enough meat for the winter?  Do we have enough warm skins to protect us?  Will we be able to survive?  Do we have a fire built that won’t go out?

The New Year and a New Way To Look At Failure

The New Year and a New Way To Look At Failure

Thank goodness our sensitivities and sensibilities are more focused on events in today’s life!  The important challenges of life have changed significantly.  However, those imprinted successes can still haunt us both in our business life, and in our personal one.  Were we successful last year?  How are we measuring that success?

Will we achieve all our goals for the New Year?  Let me shock you with a prediction.  Probably not.

Can and will we achieve a large portion of the objectives in which we wish to succeed?  If we apply ourselves to the tasks at hand and focus our attention on the details required to succeed, sacrifice other events and opportunities to that one end, you can probably be successful.

But what exactly is success, anyway?  And more to the point, what exactly is failure?

One of the true tragedies of our society is this:  ask any kindergarten student what failure is, and they can tell you– because they have already been conditioned to understand failure.  It’s programmed in from the earliest age. Failure, in the strictest colloquial manner, means that you didn’t achieve a specific goal that you set out to accomplish.  But what do we really know about failure and success?  Let’s see what society teaches us.

  1. Success is good. It allows us to complete a task that we set out to achieve.
  2. Failure is bad. It reflects badly upon us, upon our organization, upon our family, and upon anyone who elects to associate with us.
  3. No one wants to fail.

Wait. What?

Failure exists when and where people set goals and measure specific performance against those specific, targeted—or often mandated–goals.

Let’s think about that for a moment.

If you’re in business and you target $1 Million Dollars in sales to be achieved within a specific time window, and you only achieve $950,000 of that $1M goal, you might or might not achieve a payout bonus for the year…and you might even be considered a failure. Personally, I’d think you made 95% of what you set out to achieve, which represents 67% more than the majority of others in similar positions, with similar goals,are able to achieve.   You’ve beaten the results attained by more than 2/3 of others in similar roles.  But that’s not good enough?

Anecdotally, I can share a similar story which illustrates this point poignantly.  At one point in my career, I managed multiple retail locations for a top five retail group.  A new Director of Operations joined the group and publicly stated his revenue goal for the year was $1 Million per retail operation.  He achieved an $898,000 average, yet was forced out of his position.  The sales growth that he achieved was an increase in real dollars of over $270,000 per year, yet he was considered a failure for not reaching his goal of $1M.

There are reasons we set goals for ourselves and allow others to set goals for us.  We want to achieve that which society mandates as success.  Success goals are set to fulfill expectations.  A goal is set and given to measure success achievement or failure.  If we achieve the goal, we’ve been successful.

Those of us who have enjoyed both success and failure in life recognize, however, that success as a concept has many other component parts.  Success as a concept can be achieved through an entire series of events not related to the goals that you set.  And so can failure.

In business we often look at challenges faced–and not met–and say that we failed.  Did we really?  Can we honestly say that no learning was achieved throughout the entire process of life as measured in that time window?  Can wenot say that we learned what NOT to do in the future?

And if that is the case, can we classify any life lessons gained as a failure?

Where individuals target success and model success as an expectation, they generally achieve success.

Few people target failure.  They fall into the success model definition.

Business and science–much of life for many of us– has become steeped in the importance of setting specific goals and achieving those goals; or, one is taught that he or she is a failure.  We’d argue that more events have evolved out of measured failure and fault to help solve scientific, business, and interpersonal relationship issues than have ever been rated successful.  For every rousing success, one recognizes six or eight failures. Upon examination, we find success demonstrates itself in a failed task in a myriad of ways and under a myriad of conditions.  One may set a goal to achieve and miss that goal, but will find other opportunities for personal and professional growth and development along the way.

Many people make a lifestyle choice and adopt a philosophy that life is for living, and those things that we learn along the way help guide other choices that we make.  They allow others to focus on success or failure.

So how can we set some targets for failure?

  1. Learn to view life’s objectives to be achieved not as fixed targets– but as opportunities for personal growth, expression, learning, and success. Few of us are able to achieve all that we set out to do, so the inability to successfully complete 100% of everything you’ve targeted certainly doesn’t make you a failure.  If your business is creating meaningful work for you and others, and is generating revenue to meet the financial needs of the business, you will meet the targeted definition of success.  Why worry if it’s not doing all that it can?  That simply means that you have additional opportunity to grow the business.  Recognize and address them. Don’t look at that as a failure.  Viewing that through the gray-white glasses of failure paints your accomplishments with undue negativity.  Same with life.
  1. Take your failures of today and restructure your thinking so that what life defines as the failures of today become your successes of tomorrow. Learn that there are event s and occurrences you simply can’t plan for; you simply can’t change.  Sometimes the world is—shock of shocks–bigger than you are, and the challenges you will face are impossible to overcome.  Failure stalks these huge challenges and wants to seize your self-esteem and your feelings of self-worth.
  1. Begin to look at failure as an opportunity to successfully complete the additional requirements that life has offered you. Life regularly throws challenges at us.  You’re driving to work and you have a flat tire.  You’re rushing to catch a flight at the airport and you’ve been delayed at check in…and you miss the flight.  You’re interviewing for a new job and you’re not selected.

I recently had a former MBA student share with me that she was starting a new job after a job search of over a year, but she was terribly upset because the compensation offered didn’t meet her personal objectives.  My advice to her? Be happy that she was able to work in a meaningful job with more than adequate compensation.

Let’s make a suggestion–Learn to view life not as a success or failure, but as a continuous opportunity for learning and change.  Expect the impossible to be achieved and you’ll often find it is.And as you learn to build upon your growing and evolving stream of life experiences, embrace the knowledge that you gain—not necessarily the successes that society has offered, but the events that help shape and direct your life to be fuller, more complete, and beneficial for those around you.

The New Year and a New Way To Look At Failure
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