The Blog

She Shoots, She Misses! Why Failure Is the Key to Brilliance

'Fail better', fail fast, but make sure you've failed: that's what venture capitalists and innovation experts keep telling us. But how many of us truly embrace failure? I'm not sure we're even agreed on what it means.

'Fail better', fail fast, but make sure you've failed: that's what venture capitalists and innovation experts keep telling us.

But how many of us truly embrace failure? I'm not sure we're even agreed on what it means.

If you're like many women with whom I work, the very word sends shivers down your spine. For whatever reasons, it seems that even very senior women have a deep dread of failure.

Instead, they work morning, noon and night just to avoid dropping the ball. Some stick with corporate jobs they no longer love because they lack the confidence to step out on their own, according to a recent GEM report.

Others are often shocked when they make even a fairly minor mistake, because they are out of practice. (Something a handful of schools are starting to address through 'failure weeks'). One loss and they may believe that everything will fall apart - and that can be self-fulfilling.

"Many girls are indeed even more failure-averse than boys. They're fiercely competitive, super-keen to prove that they're equal in every way. So 'failure' - in exams, on the sports field or the Monopoly board, come to that - is perceived as undermining that," says entrepreneur Josephine Fairley.

But that fear creates a rod for our own backs and can drag women to overwork, drinking or eating too much, depression and, at worst, burn out - ironically, a bigger failure than the ones we guard against.

Failing or just doing?

Failure and its effects aren't talked about enough. We rarely even use the word, let alone discuss what it might signify for women or how it might affect our leadership.

And as much as investors extol failure, in reality, people still shrink from it. We rarely hear women leaders or entrepreneurs talk frankly about major mistakes or ventures that bit the dust.

We get mixed messages: at school, progress largely depends on doing things correctly the first time. In entry-level jobs, it's largely the same. Innovation may require risk-taking, but the reason that business angels prefer loaning to women is precisely because they are deemed less of a risk. Even among successful women, the word failure is applied too liberally to what I would call normal career ups and downs. Meanwhile, we admire over-achievers, we call them 'superwomen' - but is it an honorary badge or a burden?

Failing consciously

Failing at a few things is important -- you learn from it and test your limits. Experimentation, discovery and elimination are essential to the process of innovation.

In today's uncertain climate, leadership means learning to be adaptable and resourceful. But this may mean moving outside of your comfort zone - taking risks, making mistakes.

Addressing it means focusing on three areas:

1. Limiting beliefs, such as 'I cannot fail'. What are these?

2. Your conditions of satisfaction. Are they appropriate and realistic? What is good enough? Not everything can have your all, so where can you make concessions without considering yourself a loser?

3. What does balance look like to you? There are things you may be giving up (or failing at) inadvertently. What would be more pragmatic, without being in any way substandard?

Asking these questions of yourself leads to all kinds of conversations.

What would failure mean to you? What matters so much you don't want to slip? There's a need for clarity between one-off vs. ongoing failure and a recognition of how little behaviours - sleeping patterns or diet, -- can contribute.

Try to be as clear as you can about your priorities: the risks you will take and your limitations. What does it mean to you to be reliant on others?

Fear of failure often links to people not being clear about their corporate vision and their personal vision, and how/if those intersect harmoniously. You must be able to get your self-esteem from something other than work.

The language used could also be more helpful. Using specific language will help people differentiate between 'learning experiments' and abject failure. I also like the idea that we should all 'practice failing' in a safe environment, as Tim Harford puts it.

You need to try new things or you'll never be truly brilliant. Unless you role model this stuff, people will get a subliminal message that it's not OK to fail. They won't try anything new. And you won't be leading because no-one will be going anywhere.