Dealing with Failure
“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again”
This great quote can be traced back to Thomas H. Palmer an American educator and English novelist Frederick Maryat. Palmer is credited with the quote in 1840 and Maryat in his novel published in 1847.
The original phrase is “Tis a lesson you should heed, try, try again. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”
If you know the popular version or the original version, have you ever noticed that the ration to failing to trying is a 2:1 ratio? Try twice – fail once.
I don’t know about you, but I would love to have just a 2:1 try to fail ratio. Think about how much less stress or time would be wasted if we could go through the process of setting a goal, executing and then failing or if this is the second try, succeeding. We could no doubt accomplish so much more with our lives.
There are a couple of downsides to only needing to try and try again before succeeding. The first that jumps to mind is that so many more people would achieve success in difficult endeavors that people who are truly excellent in their fields would be reduced to slightly above average status. Another down side to just try and try again is that we would loose those the stories and inspirational examples of people who have endured multiple failures and then broke free to levels of success that others did not feel were possible.
It took Thomas Edison well over a thousand experiments that didn’t work (failures) before he discovered how to create a light build that worked. When a young journalist asked Edison about all of his failures and why Edison kept trying to make the light bulb when gaslights already existed, Edison replied, “…don’t you realize that I did not fail but successfully discovered over a thousand ways that won’t work!”
Edison’s determination to discover (or fail) over a thousand times is why the world knows of Edison and not the name of the man who only found 100 or 500 ways the light bulb wouldn’t work.
As it is getting close to springtime and another season of baseball, let’s take a look at one of the measures of success in that sport, the batting average. The batting average is essentially a measure of how successful a batter is at getting a base hit.
Ty Cobb holds the distinction of having the highest career batting average in baseball. Cobb’s lifetime batting average is .366. What the .366 average means is that in his entire professional career, he failed about 63% of the time to get a base hit.
The last part of failing at an activity is the learning of what you are not particularly skilled at of have an aptitude for. Michael Jordan left basketball after winning three championships with the Chicago Bulls to go play professional baseball. After one season of batting .202 (failing almost 80% of the time) he realized that his skills and abilities lay with playing professional basketball and not baseball.
Jordan returned to basketball the next season and went on to win another three championships in basketball. Do you think that because Jordan failed at baseball that made him a failure in life? Do you think that maybe he wanted to attempt something that he was interested in and learn if he could apply the same intangible skills such as intensity and hard work to baseball?
As the example of Michael Jordan points out, failing does not always mean that you should continue to repeat what it is that you are doing or keep sinking resources towards an activity or business that you just are not cut out for.
Failing should be taken as a lesson in either how to improve what you are doing or learning that your goal may not be a fit for you. Here are a few steps that I have my clients following while working through the failure process:
- Embrace or own the failure, yep you failed take ownership and don’t blame others or circumstances
- If you need to, go ahead and feel bad about the experience, but don’t stay in a negative emotional state for long. Winners move on from failures.
- Do some soul-searching to identify both the points of failure and the points of success
- Ask yourself if this path or activity is truly for you or have your realized that you are not a fit for what you are trying to accomplish
- Develop a plan to try again using the lessons learned (adjust the experiment, adjust your batting stance, adjust your business model, etc)
The next time that you find yourself failing, don’t be afraid or ashamed. Realize that the only people who don’t fail are people who don’t try. Every failure is a chance to learn and grow either personally or professionally.
Oh and remember, “Tis a lesson you should heed, try, try again. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”