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As this fiscal year rolls to a close, business people will invariably begin tallying their professional wins and losses of 2017. Corporate execs at every level will crunch numbers and calculate bottom lines. Managers will look at what they did well and what they did poorly. In taking stock, they will invariably start preparing for the year ahead. Goals will be set. Business, marketing and sales plans will be drafted. Resolutions will be made. That’s all fine.
But what if, instead of making big plans of how to improve and succeed in 2018, the plan was to fail… and not just fail, but fail big?! What if the goal for the next 12 months was to shoot for an epic failure? What would that plan look like? Would it start by setting unrealistic expectations and fantasizing impossible dreams? Would it include crafting major plans to expand, overhauling existing systems that work, aggressively hiring and training staff, and establishing sales quotas that would make even that most optimistic, can-do leaders balk? Would it involve enthusiastically renovating office or factory space and investing heavily in the latest “unproven” technologies like AI? Would it culminate with a miscalculation so big that it would rival those of Enron, Swiss Air or Borders? Who (in their right mind) would deliberately plan to fail… and fail big? Sounds insane? Perhaps. Or perhaps it’s crazy like a fox.
Fail is a “Bad Word”
FAIL is a really ugly, four-letter word in the English language. In a capitalist, democratic, 1st world nation, there is probably no bigger personal insult than to call someone a “Failure.” It’s okay to be thought mentally ill (eccentric), cheap (frugal), or even mean (standoffish). But there is no euphemism for failure. Letdown. Washout. Disappointment. Flop. They are all equally bad. There is no word to soften the blow of failure because it is considered downright shameful. For scrappy, shrewd Americans to be “a failure” is practically unpatriotic. Everyone wants to be thought “successful” even if success is defined in a multitude of ways. Success is such an intrinsic, fundamental part of American psyche that every aspect of life is measured with that yardstick and ultimately people have come to fear failure as much as – or perhaps even more than — they desire success. In other countries, people work to live, but in America, we live to work and professional success is paramount.
That is why most companies hedge their bets and take modest risks. They fear failure. The Great Recession exacerbated that management approach, with companies investing little in growth, expansion, updating equipment and technology, staff training or product development. While small, fledgling companies have been willing to take bigger risks, mid-sized companies, large organizations and global behemoths have been generally taking cautious, calculated risks. Few have been willing to stick their entrepreneurial necks out too far for fear of having it guillotined. Who can blame them? After all, companies that endure epic fails are scrutinized and dissected by the media and become the case studies of what not to do for decades to come. Just think of the Ford Edsel, the mega automotive flop of 1958. Even now, the word Edsel is synonymous with failure. Edsel stands as the classic, business-school cautionary tale of a disastrous product design and launch… even now, some 60 years later.
So why recommend failing in 2018? Because failure leads to big growth, big learning and big rewards.
1. Failure is the best teacher.
Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.
Failure is the greatest educator. We learn most when we fail. Failure is an opportunity to investigate what actions led up to or what actions were missed that could have prevented failure. Right after a failure is the time to ask questions. What happened? What mistakes were made? What lessons can be learned? Where there any miscalculations? Why did this happen? Failures present golden opportunities to analyze, clarify, focus and redirect. If it is a personal failing, think about how it feels. What was your reaction? What qualities or flaws did it bring out? If the department failed, how did the leadership respond? How did the staff respond? Was there finger-pointing or ownership of the issues? Were there opportunities to reflect and grow, or was the response punitive? Ask questions. Dig for answers like mining for nuggets of gold. There’s gold in them there failures!
Failure reveals more about character than success ever will. Losing a job teaches humility and tenacity. Steve Jobs is perhaps the most famous “firing” of recent times, fired and then rehired by Apple, but he is hardly alone. Carly Fiorina, Hillary Clinton, Mark Cuban, J.K. Rowling, Michael Bloomberg, Julia Child, Bill Belichik, and Oprah Winfrey were all fired from jobs before they made it BIG. Bankruptcy delivers discernment. U.S. Presidents Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Ulysses S. Grant and William McKinley all filed for bankruptcy at least once in their lives. Closing a business and laying off employees bestows business acumen. Henry Ford’s first automobile manufacturing company closed. So did Walt Disney’s first film company, H.J. Heinz’s first condiment company and Milton Hershey’s first candy company They each persevered, started again and each became incredibly successful. They all failed and learned from their failure. Talk about being in good company.
2. Failure produces growth.
The greatest barrier to success is the fear of failure.
Sven Goran Erikkson
Failures not only reveal character, but help to build character. Other kinds of knowledge can be gained from books, but the kind of learning that comes from failure cannot be garnered from any book or anyone else’s experience.
Finding the courage and tenacity to persevere when things are at their worst is what generates personal growth and corporate growth. As the saying goes, that which does not kill us makes us stronger. Like a muscle that tears when it is worked out, failure tears down in order to grow back stronger over time.
3. Failures are stepping stones to success.
Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.
Practically every great inventor and scientist has a quote about failure. That’s because practically every single great invention and scientific breakthrough was achieved after a great deal of trial-and-error. In science, it is called experimentation. In marketing, it’s called testing. But these are nothing more than tiny failures that serve as stepping stones on the path to enlightenment, understanding and ultimate success. Thomas Alva Edison, one of the greatest inventors of all time, said “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” He viewed each step as part of the painstaking path to that point where that which has not worked finally works. Those steps were crucial to the process. Refusing to let a setback become a permanent failure is what turns it into a stepping stone to success.
So, for professionals and companies who want 2018 to be their breakout year, shoot for an epic fail! Aim to tank. Plan to blow it. Shoot to bomb. Go big or go home. Take a big risk. That doesn’t mean gamble wildly or be completely reckless. Just take a big step out of the comfort zone toward big ideas that could result in failure. Reinvest. Expand. Push the boundaries. Don’t let fear of failure stop you. In fact, welcome it. Chances are that the year will reap a hearty harvest of insights and progress… lessons and learning that will surely lead to that ever-so-sought-after success. And those who fail to fail, oh well, then learn from that, take the win, and try even harder to fail in 2019!
Quote of the Week
“There are no secrets to success. It is the result of preparation, hard work, and learning from failure.” General Colin Powell, Former U.S. Secretary of State and former Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff
 October 6, 2015, By Beth Gillett. “21 Highly Successful People who rebounded after Getting Fired.” Business Insider. http://www.businessinsider.com/successful-people-who-were-fired-2015-10/#walt-disneys-newspaper-editor-told-the-aspiring-cartoonist-he-wasnt-creative-enough-4
 November 6, 2015. By Ethan Trex. “Seven Wildly Successful People who Survived Bankruptcy.” Mental Floss. http://mentalfloss.com/article/20169/7-wildly-successful-people-who-survived-bankruptcy
© 2017, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.