Exploring Best Failures

Because failure can be so painful and emotionally triggering, we distance ourselves at all cost, finding ways to deflect, blame, or avoid. But in doing so, we miss out on one of the most powerful catalysts for professional and personal growth.

To be clear, not all failures are best failures. Most are uninteresting, simply not getting what we want, or thought we wanted. But some failures are more complex and meaningful. They involve acting on some core intention, the essence of what we believe or are trying to offer, and then hitting a proverbial wall- running into someone or something we didn’t expect or see coming. Best failures are painful in a special way. Their impact stays with us, altering our behavior and how we see the world. Best failures matter. They are inherently powerful and beckon us to examine them more closely.

In a 2013 post, I mused that just once, I would like to go to a conference that focused on best failures rather than best practices. I was tired of pretending that we had it all figured out, holding up programs as examples of excellence and superiority, with participants taking notes and hoping to replicate results. I knew then, and still know, that focusing on successes can only get us so far. Instead, if we are able to explore our most powerful failures, we can reap the many benefits, identifying structural errors and false assumptions that can release us from stagnation and stuckness, and lead us to growth and expansion.

So why are there no best failures conferences or symposia? Because failure is closely associated with feelings of shame and embarrassment, and getting too close can result in negative emotions and discomfort. But what if we could get some emotional distance and create space for holding up our best failures as opportunities for growth, learning, and innovation. Not just any failures, mind you, but the really powerful ones, the ones that will lead to new opportunities and expansion, the type of growth that we all need and crave.

Here is a process for tapping into the power of best failures. I suggest that you do this together with a friend or mentor, someone who can challenge and guide you, and perhaps share in the process along the way.

  • Identify best failures.

Remember that best failures are not about simple rejection or not getting what you want. They are symbolic stories, representing grand attempts to engage your mission or core contributions, going for it, throwing your heart and soul into something of importance, only to hit a wall. Best failures leave you reeling, profoundly disappointed, and in some way changed by the experience. Because so few failures are best failures, you will need some time to sort through your collection and identify those worthy of further exploration. Imagine yourself sorting through your closet, briefly examining each garment, deciding which to keep and which to give away. As you bring potential candidates into consideration, ask yourself whether it is a symbolic and important failure with lessons to reveal. If not, acknowledge its lack of significance, and decide to simply let it go.

  • Imagine if.

Once you have identified a best failure to work with, allow yourself to indulge in the exercise of rewriting histroy. How do you wish others had behaved differently, what ending would you have preferred? Acknowledge that this is the fantasy portion of your work; the place where most of us like to go, and stay. Take a moment to appreciate how it feels to go there, wishing and rewriting, yearning for someone to have done something differently. Now reflect on what you have learned or gained from this activity, and whether it is worthwhile to continue to focus on what could have been. Once you conclude that it is neither a good investment nor a path forward, note that it is clearly time to move on.

  • Alternate paths.

Now, hold up that same best failure and allow yourself to revisit your own behaviors leading up to the unwanted outcome. If you were to go back in time, knowing what you know now, how might you have done things differently and why? Without getting emotional, revisit the chain of events going back as far as you can, noting the various details and nuances to be modified, edited, or slightly tweaked, with each change leading to a different result or response. Acknowledge these variations as choices, and note your power in determining possible outcomes, even without altering another’s actions.  Reflect on this idea of power.  Synthesize what you have learned or discovered, and practice giving it voice- actually talking about it or describing it to someone you respect or care about. Feel your space expand.

  • Apply your insights.

Now apply these lessons to where you are now and consider how you might use them within your current or evolving context. Think of these insights as gifts that you are giving yourself, not from a place of blame or humiliation, but instead from a higher state of empowerment and growth- the version of you that lies ahead. What opportunities can you identify for putting these lessons and ideas into practice? How will you recognize their effectiveness? Take some time to imagine what it will feel like when you are honoring, or have honored these gifts. How might you expect others to respond?  What do you need to nurture or protect this best version of yourself? Feel this commitment take root.

Congratulations for your courage and commitment. In honor and recognition of the work you have done, and will continue to do, imagine receiving an invitation to serve as the keynote speaker for our very own Best Failures Symposium. Don’t get nervous, you have plenty of time to prepare your remarks, and the audience will be filled with only those who are committed to growth and learning. As you reflect on what you will share with fellow participants, allow yourself to put your insights into practice, making the most of the decisions you have as you live your life and do your work. Note how your choices affect you and others around you, and your ability to see and actualize opportunities for movement and growth. How has your story changed and how will it continue to evolve? Know that as you live boldly, you will have even more best failures to share.  These are the evidence of our courage and the keys to continued growth.

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