Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Success And Failure Can Be Valuable Teachers

I read the other day that people tend to learn more from their failures than they do their successes. You see, we chalk our successes up to hard work or even luck and don't take much time to truly analyze why we were able to succeed. On the other hand, when we fail we are more likely to dissect the activities that led to our failure.

It's like the baseball player who is on a hot streak. When his batting average is soaring, he takes little time to analyze why things are going so well. He's just happy they are. But when he's in a slump, the ballplayer will sit down and analyze every part of his approach to hitting. He'll consider his game preparation and study video of his swing. He'll look to make adjustments to his stance, his swing, or his bat to alter the outcomes that have become all too familiar. Like us, he takes his success in stride but obsesses over his failures.

Collin Powell once said, "There is no secret to success. It is the result of preparation, hard work and learning from failure." Maybe he was thinking about the great American inventor Thomas Edison when  he said this. Edison is one of the most successful inventors in American history, giving us the light bulb as well as holding more that 1,000 other U.S. patents. Yet it is said that Edison failed nearly 10,000 times before reaching a breakthrough with the light bulb. Can you imagine how many times he failed in his lifetime, if he did so 10,000 times on a single invention?

Michael Jordan UNC jersey Many people have heard the story about Michael Jordan being cut from his high school basketball team, only to go on to become the greatest player of all time. But what's more interesting to me is how that experience affected him. Jordan used that single experience to drive his success. He understood the value that failure provides. He once said, "I have missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I have lost almost 300 games. On 26 occasions, I have been entrusted to take the game-winning shot, and I missed. I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed." Jordan didn't try to forget about all the times he failed, he kept track of his failures and used them to fuel his competitive spirit.

Jordan must have had a growth mindset. You see, how you think about failure makes a difference in whether or not you learn from it. A study by Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck tracked and compared the brain waves of subjects with growth and fixed mind-sets. When those with growth mind-sets fail at a task, they enter a more focused mental state as they try to figure out their mistake. And when they make another attempt at the task, they improve. They've learned from their failure, and their brains have "grown." Those with fixed mind-sets don't enter the focused state of learning and show little, if any, improvement.

There is a lot to be learned from all of this:

  1. If we want to grow, we need to learn from our mistakes. We need to have a growth mindset and learn from our failures in order to improve.
  2. Instead of taking them for granted or chalking them up to luck, we need to analyze our success as well. We need to spend as much time figuring out why we succeeded as we do studying our mistakes.
  3. We can use our failures to motivate ourselves to achieve more, as Edison and Jordan did. Don't try to forget about your mistakes, but use them to drive yourself to greater heights.
  4. As a manager, make sure you use failure as an opportunity to teach and not berate. And don't forget to remind your team to study its successes as well.

Failure can be frustrating and disheartening. But if we put it in perspective, if we allow ourselves to learn from our failures and use them as motivation to achieve even more, then they're just one of the steps in the path to success.

Thanks to Dan Oswald / M. Lee Smith Publishers LLC / Blogs HR Hero

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