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The New Story of Failure

Why success i s not sustainable without failure.

I was with a group of 14 year olds last month, part of a 10 days long Leadership program that Aspen runs for kids, half from a reputed top notch school from Delhi and other half an assorted bunch of sponsored kids from government aided schools from various parts of the Country. This was my fourth year working with a program like this.

As I was getting a briefing from the Co-coordinators I heard one particular story many times from different people. It was about Padma, a boy from Ladakh, a quiet but not shy boy.

The participants had to give a 2 minute introduction of themselves, and when Padma spoke his introduction line was “ I come from a school of failures” and then he went on to tell about how he failed class 10th, how he is learning engineering from the actual workshops and making things himself (he really reminded me of Aamir khan from the movie 3 idiots – a known bollywood actor)

What struck me about the story of this boy was not so much him (I have met a few amazing people from Ladakh and I feel something about that environment is contributing to the wisdom – but that is another story) – But how his story was ‘Impacting’ the teachers and the other students from the affluent school and background.

Clearly it was an Unorthodox introduction and the reactions – gaping mouth and wide eyes confirmed that.

Almost all versions of this story when I heard ended with a breathless “PAUSE” after the opening line.

The silence seemed to be saying, .. .”Can you Believe it?? He spoke about his failure?? – Disbelief !!

And almost immediately a sense of involuntary admiration and respect that said,

Wow he is so secure about himself that he can say this, I wish I could too” – Longing!!

Both these reactions really made me think about the relationship we have with Failure. It is certainly a Taboo word in many cultures in both the worlds – domestic and corporate. It comes with its own legacy of Shame- Guilt – Fear – disappointment – Judgments – non-acceptance- being ostracized – Loss.

Think about it .. how many times have you voluntarily shared your stories of Failure??

How did we end up here as a society?? Failure is looked down on – never given a chance to speak – never acknowledged, shoved under the carpet, hidden from view when guests come home, or dressed up in makeup and brought out with a mask of false bravado.

We have become a society of “Fix-its”.

In my work with organizations and leaders I have seen this same story play out. 

There is a Wall of Fame where “success stories” are celebrated – but why don’t we have Wall of Failures? where Failure stories are celebrated. Don’t we all fail from time to time? 

After all, to quote Edison “I didn’t fail, I just learnt 10000 ways to not make a light bulb”. But, I guess that is just for motivation speech day. Not really meant to be embed in the real world organizational environment (It was Sarcasm)

I find this paradox really confusing – On the one hand we tell people to “Be open” – Be Curious .. Risk takers, dare devils, come up with new ideas – and on the other. we ask them to Fix not fail. Failures is for the weak – tow the line ..be perfect and correct – and yes .. Be Audacious (but hey! take permission before you do)

How can people be open and curious and free when mistakes and failures are not allowed in and by the environment?

This is the perfect catch 22 situation –

Businesses today need to succeed but people are not allowed to fail.

This reminds me of an Old story from the Cherokee Tribe :

An old man is teaching lessons of life to his grandson. He says, son inside us there are two wolves. The white wolf that represents compassion, generosity, truth, love serenity, wisdom” and the Black wolf which represents greed, anger, jealousy, doubt etc.” – and these two wolves fight from time to time.

So tell me, ‘which wolf will win? the little boy without hesitation says, of course, the White one.

No, said the Old Cherokee simply, “The one you feed will win.”

“You see, if I only choose to feed the white wolf, the black one will be hiding around every corner waiting for me to become distracted or weak and jump to get the attention he craves. He will always be angry and always fighting the white wolf. But if I acknowledge him, he is happy and the white wolf is happy and we all win. For the black wolf has many qualities – tenacity, courage, fearlessness, strong-willed and great strategic thinking – that I have need of at times and that the white wolf lacks. But the white wolf has compassion, caring, strength and the ability to recognize what is in the best interest of all.

You see, son, the white wolf needs the black wolf at his side. To feed only one would starve the other and they will become uncontrollable. To feed and care for both means they will serve you well and do nothing that is not a part of something greater, something good, something of life. Feed them both and there will be no more internal struggle for your attention.

And when there is no battle inside, you can listen to the voices of deeper knowing that will guide you in choosing what is right in every circumstance or environment.

Failure stories are not just motivational quotes and one need not only learn in hindsight. We need Success and failures stories side by side.

Celebrating failure can be a strategic move in culture building. Because when you are celebrating Failure, what you are really celebrating is the capacity of risk taking, innovation, curiosity, courage.

If people get to share the failures and mistakes, they can learn from them and help each other in at least not making the same ones. Who knows how much these mistakes are costing the business?

When failures are celebrated they bring their gifts, openness, courage, entrepreneurship, new ideas, daring, humility and an ability to be flexible.

Today’s fast shifting world needs for leaders to fail fast and build faster. Organizations need to strategically build a culture where employees feel psychologically and emotionally safe to fail and to show up fully to discuss failures and learn from them.

We are all art-work in progress, in a studio commissioned to recreate ourselves… can we give ourselves and people around permission to fail. be messy?  – Because, let’s face it – the process of creation – is a messy process.

If we don’t, we will have to concede that our leadership has failed the future.

It’s time we embraced the Black wolf.

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