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Admitting Mistakes, Facing Failure

I have never been good at failing. One slip up can cause a tailspin that seems to me uncontrollable. That is why April’s issue of the Harvard Business Review, which completely focused on failure, was such an interesting read. It took a long hard look at every aspect of failing. From admitting failure to making sure you understand why you fail.

In Charlene Li’s article, “The Art of Admitting Failure” she discusses three ways to fail successfully. Most importantly she notes that an effective leader builds an organization that is resilient in the face of inevitable failures.  It’s a good read for anyone who is still growing into their position as a manager.

But, to be effective in your growth as a professional you have to understand why you fail.  That requires (a) admitting when you fail and (b) reflecting on your failure. Both are difficult, but understanding why you fail is probably the only thing that can keep you from making the same mistakes.

Below is a checklist on how to reflect on failure.

  1. Was this really my true north? I recently had a conversation with one of my supervisors (appearance number five) about starting to look at documents not as “what would she think about it,” but “what would Laney think about it.” In order to succeed I have to want it. In order to want it, I have to truly believe that this is my calling.
  2. Was my own standard reasonable? I have always had incredibly high standards.  (please see here) Standards that may not be the same as those around me. Tjan recommends giving yourself a pep talk after a failure, because you aren’t expected to be able to do everything right the first time around.
  3. Did I try everything to succeed? Look, there are some times when my heart just isn’t in it. That’s when documents have a missing comma or a misspelled word. Maybe I was too tired; maybe I just needed a break. Only I know if I tried my hardest.
  4. Are you being “Macromyopic” and overdramatizing the short-term impact of the mistake? Here is that whole concept of it being a marathon and not a sprint. Yes, in the short term it may be bad, but what is the long term impact?
  5. What can I learn from my failure? Where is the learning opportunity? What could you have done differently? Admit that even if you run everything as smoothly as possible, something can go wrong and you can’t succeed. You can only try again.

Failure can be extremely rewarding when it provides valuable feedback on whether we are heading in the right direction or are asking too much too soon and need to adjust our expectations. If it doesn't do that, well then it is just failure.


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