I have a failed relationship with chocolate chip cookies. I love them so I want to learn to bake them but they refuse to bake right. Both my attempts at baking chocolate chip cookies have resulted in overdone and slightly burnt cookies. I agree that I need to practice baking but honestly I am pretty sure that if I burn another batch of cookies, I will give up baking altogether.
We have all heard it before – failures are the stepping stones to success. Then why are failures so hard to deal with? Perhaps it’s because a lot of emphasis is laid on success and minimal emphasis is laid on learning from failures.
One thing that happens when dealing with unfamiliar settings is that it’s easier to become more accepting of failures. For example when you are learning to drive in a new country, its easier to be accommodating of others who might be driving slowly or making mistakes just like you. When learning to bake, you can empathize with someone who over-baked a batch of cookies. In a way, you begin to view failures a little differently.
The most recent book I read is called Little bets by Peter Sims. Its a good book that talks about how “breakthrough ideas emerge from small discoveries”. It highlights a few interesting perspectives on dealing with failures while creating something magnificent.
One of the concepts discussed talks about failure resulting from the “illusion of rationality. We are all vulnerable to this illusion. It happens when ideas are assumptions seem logical in a plan, spreadsheet model, PowerPoint, or memo, yet they haven’t been validated on the ground or in the real world.”
Failure is inevitable and often instrumental in nudging us forward. Knowing which losses are affordable is defined in the book as the “Affordable loss principle”. This is based on the research of Professor Saras Sarasvathy. “Seasoned entrepreneurs will tend to determine in advance what they are willing to lose rather than calculating expected gains.” This principle could be used by anyone as a guideline when navigating failures. No matter how accepting of failures you might be, failure is always unwanted. We don’t want to ever fail but understanding which losses are affordable can prevent us from sulking about everything. It can also help us determine which failures are not worth risking.
The book goes on to talk about how a growth mindset learns more from setbacks than a fixed mindset. “By expecting to get things right at the start, we block ourselves psychologically and choke off a host of opportunities to learn.”
The idea of failing quickly means that we “invest less emotion and less time in any particular idea or prototype or piece of work”. This is practical advice because the less attached you are to something, the easier it is to learn from it and move on.
The book Lean Startup talks about the idea of leading small experiments while launching a new idea rather than waiting to get it all right all at once. By the time you get it all right, the world may have moved on from that phase. Consider a new initiative that you want to start in your own company or within your team. For the sake of an example, let’s consider that your team has pointed out that your company is not transparent and often they are left in the dark about important decisions. In starting small remedial steps you could begin to bridge the communication gap steadily. Instead of thinking of ideas that might fail and waiting for a break through solution, implementing “little bets” can help you learn lessons that simply can’t be learnt in theory. Remember the “Illusion of Rationality” that we covered earlier.
In a low risk setting, failure may be viewed as an unpleasant experience. But when the stakes are higher, the fear of failure can be crippling. But it is in these high risk settings, when the concept of little bets can help us keep moving forward. It minimizes the time and resources spent behind ideas and it keeps us moving forward.
Growing into a growth mindset has a lot of advantages and you can begin dealing with failures more practically and actually learn valuable lessons. Failure might be a sign that you’re moving forward. The best way to avoid failure is to not try at all…but that also means you miss out on experiences that could expand your creativity and help you grow.
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