The Paradox Of Failure: The <em>Other</em> "F" Word

The Paradox Of Failure: The"F" Word
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This is the 8th installment in the ongoing series
Impossible To Inevitable: Dare To Dream Big

"Failure sucks, but instructs."
Robert Sutton, Professor of Management Sciences and Engineering , Stanford University.

With the world being what it is today, many people are having to deal with some harsh new realities, called , "I lost my job, my life is off track, or I went for my dream and it didn't turn out". Does this mean you've failed? And if so, now what?

Some of you have sent me emails sharing your stories about climbing up the mountain of your Impossible Dreams. Depending on the dream, you might come to a place in the trek where the going is steep, the road conditions are challenging and it doesn't look like things are going to turn out. Sometimes they don't and you feel like a failure. You thought you gave it everything, but still, it didn't happen. At times like these, it's tempting to loose faith and give up. But is that the only option?

Most business schools teach their entrepreneur majors that failure is a necessary part of learning and innovation. Their motto is: "Fail early, fail fast, fail cheap."

Sounds like this advice could have application for the rest of us as well. In other words, when failure arrives at your doorstep, don't turn it away, but invite it in. I know, it might sound crazy, but perk up your ears and get this.

Failure comes with some goodies that are necessary steps on your way to success, so best you get to know this part of the process early on. Learn to make friends with your failed efforts as much as the ones that worked. You might just learn more from failure than from success.

If you haven't attended an entrepreneur program in business school, chances are you haven't been encouraged to fail, much less taught to celebrate your failures. But listen to this: every year during Entrepreneur week, Stanford's Technology Ventures Program gives an award for the "Biggest Failure" in their Entrepreneurship Tournament.

Imagine that! Failures could be celebrated! Let that sink in for a minute. What could be possible if you applied that philosophy to your own life, and specifically, to going for your impossible dreams?

More information on this incredible program at Stanford and a rich resource on the topic of innovation and failure can be found on Robert Sutton's blog here.

Very few things in life are clear-cut and straight-forward. Going for your Impossible Dreams qualifies as one of those amorphous endeavors that always seems to take you to places you never imagined and weren't part of the original plan. Life might have a slightly different path in mind for you than the one you had in mind.

Consider the story of Nathan Jon, a reader, who emailed me the story of his remarkable adventure. Nathan grew up in a small town in New England, the son of a minister. But this life wasn't for him. He always knew he wanted to be an actor.

Inspired by actor Mark Ruffalo, and with no training or experience, Nathan went to an open casting call and landed the part. He moved to LA and worked for off and on for awhile in Hollywood, but things didn't go as he'd hoped.

Discouraged, he was set to leave Hollywood when, "out of the blue", Nathan meets a big music producer and spends the next 4 years as a professional drummer (another passion of his) for bands like the Dixie Chicks and Christina Aguilara. And he hadn't played drums since he was a kid! He's now living a life that was not part of his plan. But he's got steady work.

Still, in his heart, Nathan couldn't shake his desire to be an actor. Even with the buzz around the music industry, he felt his life had gotten off course and he was missing his own boat. He spent some time "in a dark period" not knowing what to do next.

Then, "out of the blue", he gets a call from his old manager, who he hadn't spoken to in 5 years, with an offer to audition for a film directed by Mark Ruffalo. He gets the part! He got to work with his favorite actor, the one who inspired him to go into acting in the first place and just finished the filming in February. In his own words, here's where Nathan finds himself now:

"And here I sit now in total flux and still pretty much broke, and a little frightened, with NO jobs presently on the horizon, pondering daily what comes next. Life has been proving to me however that around every unseen turn lies an even greater adventure than the last if you're willing to take the ride. But sometimes it's really hard not to panic. Even with all this evidence in my own life I'm still sitting here trying not to panic."

Well, Nathan, Ole! to you. Keep the faith and keep breathing. And keep us posted. Greater things are on their way. Use this time in the void productively. Maybe it's now your turn to make a difference for someone coming along with a dream, just like yours.

The point is, dear readers, when life throws you a curve, investigate it. It's there for a reason.

Impossible Dream Lesson #8- Don't be attached to how you get to your dream.

Wouldn't it be nice if everything you ever wanted or went after went according to plan, no surprises or delays, no unexpected challenges to throw you off course? Not according to Robert Komisar , a partner in KPCB venture capital firm.

"The ones who go through life failing little or not at all are not as wise as those who have actually failed," says Komisar.

The word "failure" carries a heavy charge in most cultures. No one volunteers for failure. It seems to come, when it does, either in spite of the best laid plans or because those plans weren't actually as well laid out as you thought. But it always comes bearing a gift.

There is much to be learned from failure, so it's good idea to get on top of it, ASAP. You were meant to do great things, including learning from the stuff you did that didn't work. To do that means you need to learn to look at failure through a different lens.

7 Steps For Getting The Lesson or as Randy Komisar puts it "How to get your money's worth out of failure"

1) Stop and step back. Breakdown is life's way of calling a "Time out". It's the referee blowing the whistle. So just stop. Stop doing what didn't work.

2) Do an inquiry.. Go back to see what you'd committed yourself to that had you taking the action you took that resulted in the breakdown. Breakdown only occurs inside the context of commitment. No commitment, no breakdown. Let's talk more about this next time.

3) Be honest with yourself. Look to see, inside this commitment, what action(s) didn't work? This is not the time to go into denial or pretend you don't know. Even if you think you don't know, ask yourself "If I did know, what would it be?"

4) Once you see what didn't work, ask yourself, "What was missing in me that had me get off course?" This is not about self-recrimination. What was missing in you, like a possibility? Maybe you weren't sufficiently focused, or lacking self-confidence. We're looking for where you can course correct and re-align yourself to get back on track with your original commitment.

5) Re-evaluate your commitment and re-commit . Are you still committed to this dream? Is this what you really want? If so, re-commit. You can expect that life will test you to make sure you're really committed, so get back on the bus of your dream and go again.

6) What did you learn about yourself through this breakdown? Where do you stop yourself? What limiting beliefs take over? What fears do you give your power to? Just think of these as life's little "commitment checks", just checking to see if this is what you're really after. Failure is here to teach you something. Did you get the lesson?

7) Choose again and take action Get back on the bus and off you go! Enjoy the ride until the next bump in the road.

Here's an amazing video from Honda Motors. But it's not a commercial for their cars. It's a wonderful lesson in how their engineers have learned to use failure to help pave the way to success. There's some important learning here for us. Give it a watch:

"All the demands from Soichiro Honda were to take risks and fail. The idea is that you can fail 100 times as long as you succeed once. We can only make fantastic advances in technology through many failures." Takeo Fukui, President and CEO, Honda Motor Co., LTD.

Each of us has the power to turn our failures into success. Life hands us circumstances, but we're the ones who choose what to make of them. Failure is a victory if you learn from it, so don't be afraid to fail. It only means you're up to something big.

To borrow my new favorite word from Elizabeth Gilbert, Ole! to your failures. May they come bearing many gifts.

What breakdowns have you experienced on your way to your dreams? What's been the biggest learning for you from them? We'd love to hear from you, so please check into the Leave a Comment section below and let's expand the conversation. The floor is all yours.


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An update for readers of last week's post on the teens from Village Academy High School in Pomona, CA. I spoke with their teacher, Michael Steinman, on Monday and he said the kids have had a phenomenal week. Coverage of their story brought them much national attention and they're on fire and becoming activists. They've received an invitation to speak at a convention on poverty in Sacramento next October. This is a big deal for these kids. I thought you'd want to know.

As always, thanks for being here. I love and welcome your participation. You can also reach me by email at or on Facebook. Send me a friend request and let me know you're a reader. The Impossible Dreamers group on FB has over 200 members and we're reserving a spot for you, so join in. Ole!

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