The Only Real Failure

“Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.”

The above quote by the infinitely wise Nelson Mandela is a valuable lesson for us all to learn: Failure is not avoidable, nor should it be, failure is what defines us. From failure, we learn, we grow. But failure can be hard. It can leave us feeling lost, demoralized, and unmotivated. We worry what others will think of us should we not succeed, so we avoid risk in order to protect ourselves from failure. Instead though, we should learn how to accept and manage failure.

Scenario 1: You receive feedback that your performance does not meet expectations

Feedback can be hard to take, especially when it’s not positive. We have a natural tendency to go on the defensive. We start rattling off excuses or pointing fingers. Sometimes our performance failures may indeed be the byproduct of something beyond our immediate control, but either way it doesn’t change the outcome. Instead of looking backward, look forward. Accept the feedback and take it a step further – ask how you can improve. Set up a plan to reduce the barriers to your success, whether that’s taking additional training, working out issues with a coworker, or delegating work to make your load more manageable. Many people will never get feedback on their performance, so if you do, take it as an opportunity – which is exactly what it is – an opportunity that someone else has given you to prove you can do something great and that this particular performance doesn’t define your entire career.

Scenario 2: You realize you don’t know how to do something

I’m going to let you in on a secret: We can’t do everything. This is especially hard for us go-getters to accept. We think we can figure it all out – delegate something? Never! While it is great to be resourceful, and your first step should always be to try to do something yourself, it is equally acceptable to admit that you can’t. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, to say, “Could you clarify that? I am not sure I understand.” or “Who would be a good person to ask for more information on that?” Be willing to do the legwork, but don’t hesitate to ask for direction.

Scenario 3: Something goes wrong

Well that wasn’t in the plan. A client pulls out last minute; a system fails; a deal is lost; you’re going to miss a deadline; someone important is unhappy. There are innumerable ways that something could go wrong. Change, human error, technology glitches – they are all inevitable. The key is to get ahead of these things as much as you can. Develop plans with flexibility for errors and contingencies for unexpected situations. Address issues as soon as they arise. Don’t wait for something to become a disaster before mentioning it to your boss. Just like with the previous scenarios, you need to be willing to let go of pride or fear and admit that things aren’t on track and that you may need help to fix it. As things do go wrong, remember your attitude is critical – be humble, take responsibility, and stay positive about your options.

It is easy to be great during times of success. It is much harder to do so during times of difficulty. But your ability to come out of challenges stronger than when you went in is a testament to your true abilities. Failure is inevitable, but not terrible. Think of it not as the end, but instead as a stepping stone to greater success.


Discussion: Lead from the back

Lead from the back — and let others believe they are in front.

– Nelson Mandela

In celebration of Nelson Mandela’s life, I would love to hear your feedback on this quote. What does it mean to you to “lead from the back?” Leave your thoughts in the comments below.