• Bill Petrie

Failure is Spectacular

Why it's important to embrace mistakes.

From a very early age, the message of failure is driven into our subconscious: failure is bad; failure means you didn’t prepare; failure means you didn’t study hard enough; failure means you are lazy or – worse – weren’t smart enough to begin with. All of this teaches us that, more than anything, failure is something to be ashamed of and hidden from public view.

Those early experiences of shame are too deep to simply erase. As such, we all continue to resist and reject failure because, regardless of what anyone says, defeat is embarrassing.

It’s easy to say that failure is an opportunity for growth, and speakers from every walk of life have sermonized on this for decades. While this is a very accurate perspective, most people interpret that statement to mean that mistakes are a necessary evil. Mistakes and failures aren’t a necessary evil. In fact, they aren’t evil at all.

It’s not about accepting failure with dignity and simply marching forward. Instead, the better and far more accurate interpretation is that failure is a manifestation of learning and exploration. Mistakes are an inevitable consequence of doing something new. Because of this, they should be seen as valuable assets, for without them, innovation would cease to exist. However, acknowledging this truth is not enough because failure is excruciating, and our personal feelings about the embarrassment tied to mistakes tend to undermine the understanding of their worth.

Compare failure to riding a bike: it’s impossible to learn this skill without falling over a few times and likely scraping an elbow or a knee a few times. The key to learning to ride is to get a bike as low to the ground as can be found, strap on a helmet (along with elbow and knee pads) so the fear of falling is eliminated, and go. When this mindset is applied to everything new encountered in business and life, the negative connotation associated with making mistakes and failure is undermined.

How do you know if an organization has embraced an adverse view of failure? First, ask yourself what happens when a mistake is discovered. Do people shut down and turn inward, or do they come together to unravel the cause(s) of the issue that might prevent failure in the future? In other words, are people asking, “Whose fault is this?” If so, the culture assails failure, which will stagnate innovation and growth. Even worse, the initial failure is often magnified by the spoken or unspoken search for a scapegoat and team members pointing fingers at each other.

In this type of culture – where failure is something to be avoided at just about all costs – people will either consciously or unconsciously avoid risk. Instead, they will seek to repeat something safe that’s been “good enough” in the past, and their work will be derivative and stale. However, if you can foster a positive understanding of failure, the opposite will happen.

The solution is as tricky as it is simple: from the top-down, people must openly share mistakes and their part in creating them. Being open about problems is the first essential step in learning from them. While fear will always be part of the equation, this approach will loosen fear’s grip on people within the organization. Of course, none of us wants to fail often, but we must shift our thinking and realize that the cost of failure is an investment in the future.


You've already had failures. Now, go out and fail again - and make it spectacular.

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