Is it just a catchy phrase?

Everyone by now has probably heard companies talk about “celebrating failure” or the famous one at Facebook, “move fast and break things”. I am a big believer in this methodology, but in some circles it often exhibits eye rolls and mockery. I get that. Whenever something starts getting thrown about a lot and used everywhere, it starts to lose its meaning. I am going to explain why it is so important for you as a leader to embrace the essence of failure.

I want to preface this by saying that this advice is more applicable to businesses and professions that require more creativity (e.g., computer programming or anything that requires a person to solve novel problems regularly), and is less applicable to people and businesses that require rote activities (e.g., cleaning services or fast food services).

I will get to it later…

First I need to talk about procrastinating. People procrastinate for various reasons, but the reasons fall into four basic categories:

  • Self Control
  • Motivating Factors
  • Demotivating Factors
  • Inhibiting Factors

Self Control is how much discipline you have. Most people that procrastinate tend to often talk about their lack of self control, as if that is the main factor in getting things done. We are not going to talk about Self Control today, but it is only one of (and arguably not the most important) reason people procrastinate.

Motivating Factors are things like wanting a better life. Wanting more money. Boosting your ego. Helping others. Making your life easier. Seeing how far you can get (see Ego). Not getting fired.

Demotivating Factors are things like Losing Money. Losing Friends. Losing Time. Fear of pain. Fear of failure. Fear of whatever. But most importantly, fear of something that impacts your Ego.

Inhibiting Factors are things like Lack of Sleep. Lack of Mental Energy. Lack of Time. Lack of Money.

All of these things contribute to people procrastinating. And when I say procrastinating, I mean not only getting things done late, but also not getting things done at all. Not trying for that new job. Not going back to school. Not starting that new business. Not meeting new people. Not trying untested things to make your product better. Not sticking your neck out on some unproven but potentially lucrative idea.

So what are we talking about today?

For the sake of this discussion, I am going to focus on Motivating and Demotivating Factors. For some people (say, Elon Musk or Steve Jobs), the motivating factors simply outweigh the demotivating factors for them. I personally believe it is because they are broken as individuals, where they simply don’t care what others think about them. You may have known someone like this in your life, but usually those kinds of people don’t have the “motivating” component in their personalities so they end up at the edges of society and unsuccessful. For Elon/Steve, their motivation was so off the scale in the other direction that they are/were able to achieve what others can only dream of.

For the rest of us, we have a healthier balance of motivations and demotivations in our personalities. And that is the crux of the problem. When your motivations and demotivations are balanced, riskier endeavours promote inaction. In the hunter/gatherer time of human evolution, even when you are hungry (motivating factor) you are going to hesitate to try to kill something that can kill you, like a lion or an elephant. Fear of death will do that. But in today’s world our demotivating factors are rarely life and death. They are usually ego based.

So what can we do with that?

One of the best things we can do to help ourselves accomplish more is to eliminate our demotivations, or better yet, change them from a demotivation to a motivation. And this brings us back to “embracing failure”. Logically we understand that the path to success is often through failing. It is the fastest, most thorough way of learning something new. And the biggest, most rewarding tasks you can do in your life often involve learning something new.

But failing is scary. But why is it scary? If you think about it, failing is only scary when others are involved. If you are doing something that no one will see, you feel liberated to try things without looking stupid. No one else sees the awkward failures, they only see the ego boosting success when you show them the final outcome. The problem is that most of the big things we try are quite public.

One trick you can use to help yourself accomplish more things is to turn fear of failure (and the breakdown of ego that comes with it), into a thing to be celebrated. You are doing something others are afraid to do and you know that each failure means you are that much ahead of others. You know SO much more than you did. You know that failing is simply a stepping stone to success. You know that by showing that you are failing, you are showing that you are working hard and that if you are not failing occasionally you are not trying hard enough.

What you are doing is turning a demotivation into a motivation. And this is very powerful. For me at least, it was the key to taking on those hard tasks that had a high degree of failing at least a few times before being successful. Those tasks were invariably very public and often had a number of vocal people that would use your failures as a way to push their own agendas. Let’s be honest, it is hard for a person to take that on willingly.

However, if you embody in yourself and foster a culture that “embraces failure”, not only do you feel safer in taking on those challenges, the people around you also feel that way. If you want an organization that is constantly looking to be as good as they can be, you should create a culture of accepting failure in the context of striving for success.

So make sure as a leader you are using catch phrases like “move fast and break things”. But to avoid eye rolls and groans when you say it, you should also explain why this is important.

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