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Bouncing back from failure

Someone once said - Success can never teach you what failure can. It is not without significance that the topic the famed author J K Rowling (creator of Harry Potter) chose to speak on at the 2008 Harvard University commencement address was “The fringe benefits of failure and the importance of Imagination)”.

The self perception of failure in any activity or part of life has led people to many undesirable consequences which include but may not be limited to depression, hypertension, violence, marriage break ups, loss of self belief and in the extreme cases even suicide. If the outcomes of such self perceptions of failure can be so disastrous, it is a clear signal for educators to consider counseling people to take failure in their stride, learn from it and bounce back benefiting from the experience. Clearly, the sense of failure is arguably the biggest cause of stress in society.

I feel, a whole stream of case studies could be developed at various levels of examples of people who have turned failures upside down to successes. These need to be taught to children , youth and regularly updated and used in the continuous education for adults and more so the highly educated and professionals

Sometimes when we fail to achieve a desired outcome, we realize that the approach route that we selected was probably inappropriate and we need to relook at the problem anew with a new set of eyes and perspectives and now insights from our earlier experience. Often, such a mindset leads one to discovery of newer approaches and methods to achieve the same / similar goal

History bears testimony to the fact that breakthrough innovations are only possible when the individual or team is unafraid of failures and is willing to pursue the purpose on the back of a multitude of failures. Yet, don’t we all know of institutions and organizations and families where it is not acceptable to fail? Intolerance of failures in efforts to experiment for a better way is a sure recipe for mediocrity.

No individual or team is fully aware of their hidden strengths and potential unless pushed to the edge. Such discoveries of individual / team or even nations have been on the back of major failures. Germany and Japan are great examples of failed economies that reverse the outlook in a very short time.

Take the case of failure in academic examinations or even failure to secure an admission for desired education. Families, society and peer group put so much of tacit pressure on many a youngster that a few of them crack up and take extreme steps. Truly bouncing back from such perceptions of failure is to modify aspirations based on true strengths or develop an even stronger and fiery resolve to accomplish and not succumb to such peer / parental/ societal pressures. It is said that each of us are one of seven types of geniuses and the ones who succeed are those who discover their own individual genius and play to their strengths. In this process of discovery of our natural genius, failure is a logical by product.

Sometimes, we don masks to camouflage our true aspirations, feelings and emotions. Failure in a sense strips you off your mask and self deceptions and makes us put a stop to the masquerade and helps us come to terms with the real person. When faced with such reality , the individual’s true personality traits are revealed. Remember, the best among us learn to manage the lows with dignity, grace and humility.

Bill Gates is quoted as having said – “ Success seduces smart people into thinking that they cannot fail”. I have often said that humility can never be taught by anyone. The virtue of humility is taught by failures and lessons we learn from them. Failures can be both our own and the ones that we observe or learn from others experiences.

So many stories abound of people who have made failure their seeds for determination to succeed against overwhelming odds. I am sure each of us can think of a few. I have had many a debate with colleagues in the industry on who would qualify to be the better manager / leader – one who tries a few initiatives and succeeds in all of them or one who tries many options and make a grand success of a few, huge failures of a few and average performance in the rest? While the perfectionists would argue that the former is the better of the two as there are only successes to show, I would argue otherwise. In sheer numbers, the experimenter has more tries and in some cases has developed new possibilities and in many a case, has grander success in the some areas than the former.

In interviews, I have seen the charades when people try to put across their best fronts. The failures are swept under the carpet and are not for sharing. I have seen interviewees to struggle to even name their weaknesses. Many of them try to represent a strength in an inverted way. “I am so conscious of managing time that I get irritated and upset when others do not live up to my expectations” is one such example. Even teams where others can benefit from the failure sharing experience hesitate due to the fear of ridicule of total dismissal. I would encourage people to develop failure showcases and fearlessly discuss their learning and insights from the failed experience. I have found such sharing on most occasions connect with people as not everyone has the courage to admit to one. Good evaluators always will know that to err is human but to learn and emerge from it wiser is divine. The opinions and association with the handful of evaluators who fail to recognize this strength is a better strategy in the long run.

The only way each of us learn and grow wiser with time is when we introspect. Failure develops the capability to introspect and reflect which success rarely does. Also, as I have tried to bring out, failure builds the temperament of people and develops the resolve to see through the periods of low.

I am not trying to suggest that we regard failures as a pleasant experience or a matter of fact. No one can make the experience of failure easy to bear except ourselves. Handling failure is the fire through which each of us need to go at all stages in life and the outcome can be a resolve of steel, gold or crumbling dust. The choice is entirely up to us.

It is therefore important to impart this valuable insight into all irrespective of age - young or old. Help them develop what some call a Negative / Neg repellant and life would look like one big school where we continuously learn the art of living by learning from our setbacks and moving on. It is okay – hey not just okay but helpful to have a bag of failures if you have mastered the art and science of bouncing back from the experience a lot more stronger.