Don’t Fear Failure

Why Failure Is a Stepping Stone to Success

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We hate to fail. Most of us see failure as a sign of being inept. We associate it with disappointment and pain. Our perception is that failure is all bad. But have you ever considered that there is value in failure?

I graduated from medical school at the young age of twenty- five. Following my residency and fellowship, I became one of the youngest faculty members at a major academic medical center. While I initially felt on top of the world with this early success, I quickly found myself unable to navigate a complex bureaucracy and an intricate matrix of relationships. My entire education had been focused on teaching me how to work with patients, and my years of medical training were almost exclusively focused on my clinical skill set. What I hadn’t been taught was how to be a leader, and I found myself completely unprepared, particularly as I transitioned to my role as an attending physician.

The problem was that I was expected to be an effective team leader right out of the gate but I had never been taught the basic physician leadership skills to play this role. And I failed—more than once. I adopted a leadership style based on giving orders not because I was hungry for power but because it seemed to work with the clinical actions of diagnosis and treatment. When faced with a clinical challenge, I simply assumed that I needed to come up with the answers (diagnose) and then tell everyone on the team what to do (treat).

Whenever I met a difficult challenge well—when I made a tough diagnosis or came up with a creative treatment plan for a difficult patient dilemma—my self-esteem went up. I developed a high level of confidence in my abilities. This was good progress, but it only went so far, as I started to believe—falsely—that I was solely responsible for these successes. I failed to recognize that a broader team was clearly involved in designing and implementing any successful patient plan.

At the time, I couldn’t recognize my poor leadership behavior as a human limitation—one to which anyone with some measure of success could fall prey. I believed I was somehow superior simply because I performed my individual role well. As you might imagine, this had significant negative consequences for me. Although I was dedicated to my work and served patients to the best of my abilities, my leadership style led to interpersonal conflicts, which limited my ability to be truly successful in this professional setting. It wasn’t until I adopted a more collaborative and team-centered leadership style that I saw a big difference in my overall effectiveness.

How did I make these changes? My failures forced me to re-evaluate and re-think and, ultimately, to find new ways and strategies to achieve my goals. I had to put aside my ego and accept that how I was doing things was not working and that I needed to find a better way. My failures led me to stretch my capabilities and capacities beyond my comfort zone, and, with the help of others, I began to chart a new course. My failures were valuable lessons in humility and offered me knowledge into myself.

Thomas Edison once said, “I make more mistakes than anyone I know. And eventually I patent them.” There are always obstacles between ourselves and the realization of our goals and dreams. How we respond to our failures—how we evaluate a situation, learn from it, and move on—is actually what determines our path to success.

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