Creating a Space for Failure

“One fails forward toward success.”  ~Charles F. Kettering

“Never confuse a single defeat with a final defeat. ~F. Scott Fitzgerald

“Failure is only the opportunity to begin again more intelligently.”  ~Henry Ford

“You can’t have any successes unless you can accept failure.”  ~George Cukor

“You always pass failure on your way to success.”  ~Mickey Rooney

…For all the glorification of failure, in quotes like the above, management tomes, and on teams of every type, it seems we humans are wired to try and avoid it whenever possible. Not only that, we stigmatize people we perceive as having failed unless their failure is shown as historical context for a current success. Entrepreneurs spearheading breakout companies today are seen in bright light and their prior bankruptcies and failings cast as stepping stones. Those entrepreneurs filing bankruptcy today don’t enjoy this brilliant glow, even if some of them may well be the next breakout stars in a decade’s time.

If we’re serious about failing we have to have a place to practice failure. I’ve had some success with that in my Aikido dojo.

Creating a space for failure.
In Aikido we practice in a place called a dojo. Literally this means a ‘place of the Way.’ The dojo is often described as a microcosm of the world because in it we run into many of the obstacles we encounter in ‘real life’. These range from personality differences to ego issues, from fear of embarrassment to over confidence, and from lonely struggle to the dynamics and frustrations of teamwork. As a microcosm of the world, the dojo is a useful place to practice failure. A company can be too. But in order to practice failure these spaces must be properly designed to facilitate a healthy attitude toward it.

By ‘designed’ I do not mean in terms of decor or furniture but rather in atmosphere and ethos. Knowing what we do about our innate desire to avoid failure, I believe leaders in dojo (as in corporations) do best when they continually communicate that failing is acceptable and will not be punished or frowned upon.

This has much to do with loss aversion. The theory of loss aversion asserts that we all feel loss (and therefore failure) more strongly than gain (and success). My guess is, if you look inside yourself, you will remember more acutely the moments you were embarrassed than those when you were celebrated. I know I do. From a scientific perspective, this seems to be the human condition.

Our loss aversion contributes to a certain inertia we experience. While everyone appreciates being reminded once and a while that failure is the key to success – if this is only communicated sporadically, the clarity of our past losses and failures, and the emotions that came with them, tug us back to avoiding failure. They simply eclipse the occasional inspirational words.

The trouble with avoiding failure of course is that it tends to undermine performance. When employees live in fear of failure they keep ideas to themselves. They don’t speak up, they collaborate at arm’s length (lest someone else on the team bring them down) and they focus on political issues within the office to preserve status, power and allies. This gets in the way of doing the necessary work.

My college mentor always said to be wary of someone who ‘works harder to keep their job than do it’. Wise words.

In the dojo, a student fearing failure lets their perceptions of what is right get in the way. Aikido is often counter intuitive. To learn it means looking silly sometimes and acting in a way that is soft, fluid and flowing. This is in contrast to our Western notion of what martial arts means. Men who don’t want to look foolish have trouble wriggling their hips, exaggerating their breath or moving in a manner that at times might be confused with dancing.

How ‘old school’ teaching undermines the learning process.
Compounding these internal desires is a traditional – and sometimes counterproductive – expectation of what a martial arts teacher is supposed to be. The ‘traditional martial arts teacher’ conjures an image of a silent, mostly-scowling, master pacing the mat and on occasion barking reprimands. Such an individual inspires fear among other things. The executive equivalent is not hard to imagine; that stereotypical ‘no-nonsense, cut-to-the-chase, what’s-the-bottom-line, your-career-is-riding-on-this’, senior executive.

The trouble is, a feared leader plays into the loss aversion and failure avoidance of her students or employees. This can easily turn their focus from learning the art or doing the work to simply not getting yelled at. Sure, it creates a certain blind obedience to the leader… but that ‘blind’ part should be a reason for concern.

I have found that I prefer a different approach. (By personality, I am also incapable of being a brooding stoic for any sustained period of time). In my own dojo I frequently communicate that failure is acceptable. I have found the best time to do this is right before belt exams. After all, what could elicit fear of failure more than taking a rank exam in a martial arts class?

One way I do this is with my ‘standard exam speech’. I give it every time belt exams come around so that the new students learn it and so the older students realize it is a permanent feature of the dojo – not a passing fancy of the instructor.

Failing vs. Failure.
My ‘standard exam speech’ expresses the difference between failing and being a failure. It points out that anyone can buy and wear a blackbelt but its obvious in practice who has internalized the art. The goal is knowledge not status or reward. If you take your test and fail, all it means is that the knowledge was not there yet. This is no different than a child learning to ride a bike. They may fall in the process but this doesn’t mean they won’t eventually learn.

I tell my students that I will never recommend that they test. After all, if I recommend them and they fail what does it say about my recommendation? I require only that they put in the necessary required time before they consider testing. After that, they are simply ‘eligible’ in my eyes and so must review and assess themselves to determine whether they feel the knowledge is in place. Ultimately they must decide to test or to wait. This encourages them to observe the dojo’s senior members, etc. for some sense of what the standards of the dojo are. It makes them more sensitive and outward looking as opposed to simply focusing on themselves the whole time.

In my speech, I remind them that if they are not ready but choose to test anyway, the worst that happens is that they fail the test. Should this happen, it will be discreetly handled and not embarrassing. It will also be informative and help them understand better how to align their own sense of readiness with the standards of the dojo. No harm, no foul, just greater clarity. Similarly, if they test and pass, I recommend that they take a short moment to be proud of what they’ve accomplished but then to push this satisfaction aside and focus again on the next bit to be learned. It is all about the learning and doing well, not the trinkets and titles that come along with it.

Most importantly, this communication is ongoing. It happens in the speech outlined above, but also in daily interaction with students. This is not to say it is always friendly. Sometimes a harsh word is required. But the students learn, because it is stated clearly without room for misinterpretation, that a harsh word is not directed at who they are, but rather at what they are doing that moment.

There is a big difference. The difference between failing and being a failure. It is as essential to the office as it is the dojo.

Once a student or employee understands it, they are free to achieve their potential. More than money, title, or power – self direction and self fulfillment are key ingredients to human satisfaction (read Daniel Pink’s Drive for more insight and some science behind this).

Creating a space for failure defies the laws of loss aversion and failure avoidance freeing us from the gravity of embarrassment that often keeps us weighed down.