It’s often said that we learn more from failures than successes. After all, when we succeed, we don’t always know what we did right, or how luck might have come into play. By contrast, when we make a mistake, we can usually look back and find out where we went wrong and devise a new plan for our next attempt.
There’s only one problem with this way of thinking:“It’s wrong,” says management professor Michael Roberto of Bryant University, Smithfield, R.I. “If all you do is look at a situation where you’ve stumbled, you might learn what not to do, but not necessarily how to parlay that experience into success.”
Say, for example, that a hiker tries to cross a creek by stepping on stones, but she slips and falls. Looking back, she sees that she lost her footing on a mossy stone. She avoids it the next time, but slips again. She keeps altering her course to avoid certain stones but never makes it across without falling.
When failures are assessed in isolation, we keep stumbling.
Instead, “You have to compare and contrast failures and successes – yours or somebody else’s,” Roberto explains.
If the hiker knows someone who has crossed the creek without falling, she can compare her failed attempt with the successful one to determine that slippery stones aren’t the problem. Rather, it’s the lack of tread on her boots.
We can use our own successes for comparison as well. “Don’t stew on what happened in the failure,” Roberto advises. “You learn faster if you say, ‘Have I had a similar situation in the past that I handled better? What did I do differently?’”
When an effort fails, “I think there are three lessons that always apply. First, calm down,” says Tim Harford, author of “Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure” (Picador, 2012). “We often compound one failure with another because we get angry or reckless. Avoid turning a small failure into a big one.”
Second, write an “after-action report.”
“This is a military habit that is worth acquiring after major successes and pretty much any failure,” Harford explains. “Write down what you did, what you learned, what went right and wrong, and what you could have done better with hindsight. Not only are you likely to salvage useful lessons but you will also have something to say for yourself if challenged.”
Lastly, “Forgive yourself,” Harford says. “It’s easy to slip from thinking ‘I failed’ to thinking ‘I am a failure.’ Don’t do that. Very smart, talented and courageous people have failed at some stage. And for those who never fail, maybe they should have pushed themselves a bit harder.”
A positive attitude and after-action reports provide fodder for future interviews, as hiring managers often ask about past failures. Harvard Business Review blogger Jeff Stibel, Chairman and CEO of Dun & Bradstreet Credibility Corp. in Los Angeles, has written that he only hires people who admit they’ve failed: “Often when interviewing, I poke around and see if I can get the candidate to acknowledge a failure. It’s a red flag to me if a candidate can’t admit a mistake with a bit of self-deprecating humor.”
When explaining a failure, a candidate should explain what caused it (without finger-pointing), what he learned and how it made him better at his job.
“You can put a positive spin on it if you did good damage control. You want to show that something good came of it,” Roberto says, “not just for you personally but for your organization.”
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