Better Embrace Your Failures
21 May 2015 - Impact Hub Member

“Barn’s burnt down — now I can see the moon.” Mizuta Masahide

You know that feeling you get when your most promise initiative fails miserably? You are not alone. According to Forbes reports, from every 10 businesses, eight fail within the first 18 months. Although the wisdom of learning from failure is incontrovertible, as breakdowns are still inherently emotionally charged, getting you to accept it is challenging and takes a new approach. First, failure is not always bad. In any entrepreneurial journey failing is sometimes bad (yes), but sometimes inevitable, and sometimes even good.

Read about any legend of innovation, from activists to scientists, and you will find that history has made natural omissions. Biographies usually don´t give attention to what´s been lost, hidden, or deliberately buried; it is mostly a telling of success. How to change old cultural beliefs and stereotypical notions of success and embrace failure’s lessons?

Here are some ideas of how to approach and embrace your fuck-ups. Use them to your advantage.

The lessons learned are priceless

If you could turn back time, would you do everything differently in order to avoid every business mistakes? Well, you shouldn’t. You probably learned more with your failures then you ever would from a famous entrepreneur’s “how to” book. That is why many enterprises have shifted to a culture of psychological safety in which the rewards of learning from failure can be fully realized. Some entrepreneurs already realized that admit failure can coexist with high standards for innovation.

Preventable failures in predictable situations can sometimes be considered “bad.” In such cases, you can readily identify the causes and come up with solutions. Checklists can help you finding your way: sit down as soon as possible after the failure, and begin to think about where the most evident problems seemed to be. It will be easier to remember what not to do. On the other hand, a large number of failures are due to the magic uncertainty of life: a particular combination of needs, people, and problems may have never occurred to you before. To consider them bad is not just a misunderstanding of how your life works – it is counterproductive.

And there is also innovators favorite type of failure, the “intelligent” one. Failures in this category can rightly be considered “desirable,” because they provide you valuable new knowledge. They occur when you need to experiment: when answers are unknown because this exact situation hasn’t been faced before and perhaps never will be again. New business models, like “Cause”, a so-called “philanthropub” in Washington D.C., are good examples. Unable to attract customers, the restaurant that promised to donate all profits to charity closed after 14 months. “I don’t want people to look at us and say, ‘Oh this business model can’t work. We made some mistakes. We’re going to be honest about what we did wrong, and maybe someone can do it better.” Vilelle, Cause co-founder.

You will never have control over the unexpected

Failure teaches us to learn from our mistakes so that the next time we can avoid making the same ones. There will be another time – this world is full of opportunities, you just can´t be too blinded from your previous failure to see them. If you try, you can always get close to a new promising opportunity. Just don’t be foolish enough to make the same mistakes again.

Sometimes your business’ failure cannot even be avoided. Liberty & Justice , Africa’s leading Fair Trade apparel manufacturing company founded by Chid Liberty, is struggling to survive amidst the West African Ebola crisis. If Chid Liberty were simply trying to build an apparel manufacturing business it is unlikely that he would have located in Liberia. It did so because a central part of its social mission is to help rebuild the Liberian economy. Last year, just when the business was getting off the ground, Liberty had to shut the factory down.

Yes, everything can go wrong and you can hit rock bottom. You survived, and now that that is over, you can move on and try again.

It provides a reality check

“Nothing important happens in life without a cost.” Jacqueline Novogratz 

Sometimes failing at something is an indication that something elsewhere isn’t right. You can use your failure as a light to reveal what is really going on with your enterprise or personal life. Over the years you had probably failed at many things: decisions that would define the future of your business, turning up regularly at the gym, being fluent in a third language, and you could go on and on. But then again you have also not failed many times. However we seem to have a terrible habit of dwelling on the negatives rather than analyzing our initiatives as a whole, pausing to reassess our actions.

Failures force us to focus on what is most important. In the book “The blue Sweater: Bridging the Gap Between Rich and Poor in an Interconnected World” Jacqueline Novogratz shares a personal story about how personal breakdowns made her reflect on her career as international banker and become a social entrepreneur and CEO of the famous nonprofit Acumen Fund, which invests patient capital in companies tackling global poverty. A proper reflection on your failure’s contexts will help you to avoid the blame game and revisit and refocus why you started your enterprise in the first place.

But be prepared: nobody said it was easy. Examining our failures in depth is emotionally unpleasant and can chip away at our self-esteem. New research shows most of us only cop to failures if they can’t be attributed to something – or someone – else. We usually tend to downplay our responsibility and place the blame on external circumstances, only to do the reverse when assessing the failures of others, a psychological trap known as fundamental attribution error. But if you take personal ownership, you’re much more likely to learn from and work harder after that mistake. Your failure experience often uncovers “talents” you never knew you had.

Bruno Patias Volpi | Service designer, co-founder of Impact Hub Curitiba and currently attending an MA in Design Futures at Goldsmiths – University of London. Researcher for the The Pi Studio (Energy Efficiency & Retrofit Policy Project) and member of the Curitiba City of Design Committee – Unesco´s Creative Cities Network.

Join us on Thursday 28th May for FuckUp Nights: Conversations about failures and other things at Impact Hub King’s Cross to explore not just how to fail, but how to get back up and own your failures. Tickets here.