A senior executive I know recently asked me to meet with one of his high-potential young professionals — a smart, talented, charismatic man in his mid-30s, and someone I remembered from his time as a Kellogg student. “Joe” — as we’ll call him — is the full package, brimming with promise, and yet he had just made what could have been a career-ending mistake: he had shared confidential information with someone he shouldn’t have. Thankfully, he’d been saved by a careful mentor in middle management, but the senior exec was worried that Joe hadn’t learned the right lesson.
When I invited Joe to lunch, he immediately downplayed the incident, and spent the rest of the time describing a number of successful, high-impact programs he’d recently completed.
The interaction made me reflect on the role that failure can play in our lives — and how often we struggle to acknowledge it and gain the value it can offer. By swiftly moving past his mistake, Joe is in danger of explaining away this significant lapse in judgment as a minor slip-up, a “foot fault,” when instead he could be using it to grow as a leader — and as a person.
Of course, there are good reasons why we prefer not to recognize failure: it can hurt us emotionally, embarrass us socially, and threaten our self-image. And yet it is also one of the most precious gifts we can receive — one that can enrich our lives and careers — so long as we can put aside our egos and acknowledge the truth.
As I see it, acknowledging failure offers three gifts.
Humility. When we sincerely acknowledge we screwed something up, we are brought low to a place of genuine pain and regret. Only then are we ready to admit that we made a mistake and seek help. The simple act of saying it aloud is a powerful step in itself. By doing so, we affirm our resolve to live with integrity and to do what is right. Importantly, we also acknowledge our need to rely on others. After all, each of us needs the kind of support and insights that can only be found in relationships, especially when we allow ourselves to be humbled and vulnerable.
Compassion. Admitting mistakes is embarrassing, almost unbearable. Trust me — I’ve been there. But embarrassment increases our compassion for others. Research shows that when we are flush with material success and status, we tend to focus more on ourselves and less on the people around us. But when we are coming off a failure, we spend more time connecting with other people and listening to their stories. I’ve noticed this in myself and observed it many times in others. It turns out that engaging in the small joys and camaraderies of everyday life is one of the best ways to soothe a chastened ego.
Openness to learning. Many articles and books have been written about the importance of having a growth mindset, the value of high learning agility, and the power of experiential learning for adults. At their core, I think all of these ideas express one key insight: successful adults learn, adapt, and grow in response to the people and circumstances life puts in their paths. We don’t learn in isolation, but from stories and examples. And we can’t learn from failure unless we see the “story” of that failure.
Kurt Lewin called this “unfreezing” the brain. His research on adult learning shows that one of the only ways to get our brains unstuck is to provide clear evidence that we’re doing something wrong — to make it salient.
This is easier said than done, of course. Since most of us want to avoid experiencing the pain that comes with failure, often the hardest stories to digest are the ones based on our own missteps, the ones where we are the story. Especially if there are no immediate consequences to our actions, it is easier — and emotionally safer — to explain away our behavior and default to happy-think. My friend Joe is in danger of doing just that. The fact that he was saved from fully experiencing his failure may be harming him in the long run.
Success may increase confidence, but it rarely, if ever, builds wisdom. Only failure can do that, and only if we let it. One of the great rewards of reaching the later years of my life is that I’ve given up on perfection and learned to welcome the grace of failure. The humility and compassion it brings open us up, help us learn, and connect us with others in new ways. Often these are the people who can lift us out of whatever hole we’ve put ourselves in, so we can learn and move on.
Originally published on LinkedIn.
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