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June 20, 2019 4 min read

What has been your greatest public or private failure? Have you ever considered that there are different types of failure? Amy Edmondson, a professor in leadership and management at Harvard Business School, has studied three different kinds of failures: preventable failure, complex failure and intelligent failure. 

  1. Preventable failure is just as the name implies and probably the only failure you should allow yourself to feel “bad” about. It essentially is a failure that you could have prevented because of previous knowledge or abilities. It could also be brought on by laziness, entitlement, or reluctance to follow instructions. For example, you have a test tomorrow that you know you should study for tonight. Instead of studying you chose to go out to dinner with friends, stay up too late, and as a result don’t pass the test even though you could have understood the material. The goal here is to learn from the mistakes and actively work to not repeat them in the future. 

These last two types of failures have the greatest potential to promote and develop learning. 

  1. Complex failures, also called unavoidable failures, occur when we have good knowledge about what needs to be done. "We have processes and protocols, but a combination of internal and external factors come together in a way to produce a failure outcome. These kinds of failures happen all the time in hospital care, for example, where there’s enough volatility or complexity in the environment that things just happen." Placing blame or responsibility for this type of failure can be difficult, sometimes nearly impossible, and is often counterproductive and unnecessary. The goal here is to remain vigilant about why the failure occurred. Addressing small failures can allow you to improve current processes and improve the system for the future. 
  2. Intelligent failures are the type of failures that entrepreneurs are talking about when they say “fail often and fast” or ‘fail forward”. These types of failures are likely to occur when experimentation is required, when you’re working in an area outside of your expertise, or in uncharted territory. "When an intelligent failure is buried or goes undiscussed, others risk repeating the exact same mistakes. The result? Increasingly inefficient organizations that replicate, instead of learn from, the same mistakes. By linking resiliency to innovation and growth we can begin to reframe failure as a positive learning experience."

“Failure comes part and parcel with invention. It’s not optional. We understand that and believe in failing early and iterating until we get it right." -Jeff Bezos 

 What are the benefits of mentally reframing our failures?

Nobel Prize winners Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky found "that the effect of loss is twice as great as the gain from a win. This astounding conclusion indicates the great negative impact a loss has on us as individuals, which is much greater than the impact of a win. Thus, it explains why we as humans would go at lengths to avoid a loss or a failure."

People generally prefer to process failure internally. Moving quickly from the initial embarrassment of failing for fear of causing a scene, seeming unprepared, or unprofessional. A better way to process failure is to take the time to reflect and communicate about the experience. In private, public, and work spaces, this reflection can help establish an increasingly trusting, collaborative, and productive workplace. Discussing failure face-to-face is also more effective than discussing it through email or text. Having a verbal conversation creates the ability to "convey tone, body language, and other non-linguistic reactions" to help humanize the conversation.  All of these elements could be lost if communicating digitally.

Sharing failures with friends and colleagues can even work in your benefit in some circumstances by increasing levels of so-called "benign envy". In comparison to malicious envy, benign envy works by raising both parties up rather than wanting to pull each other down. According to psychologist Jeremy Dean, PhD, benign envy:

1. Motivates you

2. Makes you feel good

3. Make you more creative, and 

4. Makes you smarter 

This humanizing experience can make you seem more approachable and relatable in many environments, including the workplace. 

“If you’re having lunch with some of your peers, then revealing failure is a great strategy to induce levels of liking by reducing malicious envy,” Ms. Edmondson said.

"This teaches us that although failure can be painful and we as people we have developed an aversion to it, it actually can allow us to unlock great potential. But in order to do so, we have to change our mindset on failure. Instead of seeing it as something detrimental to success, we have to see it as a tool for success, a tool that helps us refine our path and allows us to learn what works and what does not. By doing so, we can see it as a normal part of the innovation of our own lives, not as something detrimental to life."  

"One of the biggest secrets to success is operating inside your strength zone but outside of your comfort zone." -Ralph Heath, Celebrating Failure: The Power of Taking Risks, Making Mistakes and Thinking Big

 "The difference between average people and achieving people is their perception of and response to failure." -John C. Maxwell 


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