“What does this mean?” you might be thinking. “Of course there’s such a thing as failure!”
Well, of course there is – if you choose to look at it that way. If you do, please remember that the concept of failure is not a real, physical thing in the real world – it’s what academics call a ‘construct’, something that’s made up by the human mind. It’s a particular way of labelling certain events, one of many possible ways.
Since it’s our minds that have come up with the concept of failure, I think we have the right to ask how well this concept serves us. It turns out that it isn’t that helpful. In the context of evaluating your own actions, or those of people who report to you, it’s actually harmful.
Let’s say you try out some new action or new way of doing things, and it doesn’t work as you had hoped. If you think “that failed”, you might also think that you failed. From there, it’s only a short step to thinking of yourself as a failure. And once you think of yourself in those terms, what are you going to expect to happen the next time you try something new?
It’s much more useful to think of taking a new action in terms of an experiment. You try something out. It either works as you want it to, in which case great, you can keep doing it; or, it doesn’t work as you want it to, in which case you have gained valuable feedback from your environment – the universe, as my new agey friends call it – which is telling you to do something different.
That’s all that this presupposition means. You can choose how you look at the results you get. People who frame unexpected or unwanted results as failure tend to get discouraged, lose interest, and give up, and may be so demoralised that they don’t learn from the experience; when you view such results as useful feedback, you learn from what happens, modify what you are doing, keep doing that until you get the result you want – or an even better one.
One great way to take on board the feedback that the world is giving you is this: any time things don’t turn out how you want, ask yourself “What do I need to learn from this?” and leave some time and space for the answer to come to you. This is worth doing even, or perhaps especially, when what’s happened seems to be a complete accident, since we are never fully aware of how our actions affect others around us and lead to unintended consequences. Do people who do stupid things realise they are acting stupidly? Often they don’t – but if they ask themselves this question when the results come in, at least they would give themselves a chance of learning from experience.
© 2011, Andy Smith. All rights reserved.