Leadership / Management

Failure: The first step toward success

Track My daughter ran her first competitive track race last weekend. It was a prelim heat for the 100-yard dash, and she finished dead last.

The result wasn't surprising. She's young, small for her age, and this was the first time she has actually competed athletically in anything. Still, my heart broke a bit as I watched the disappointment spread across her face at the finish line.

Failure is never fun, is it? You put your heart and soul into something, then watch it collapse. In the pain the follows, one question inevitably arises: Why'd I even bother?

Here's why: When we fail, we learn how to succeed. Failure teaches, simplifies and clarifies. It shows us what doesn't work and provides a blueprint for doing what does. It's one of the best lessons life offers.

"Failure is one of the most economically important tools we have," Megan McArdle wrote recently in Time. "The goal shouldn't be to eliminate failure; it should be to build a system resilient enough to withstand it. ... The real secret to our success is that we learn from the past."

McArdle was writing in reference to the financial crisis, but her words ring true across life's spectrum.

Look, trying new things is scary. It's fraught with uncertainty and risk.

Given the rate at which our lives are changing these days, it's also absolutely necessary. The key is to identify opportunities, take a few chances, learn from your mistakes and move on -- and to do all of that sooner rather than later. As Rita McGrath said at the 2010 DigitalNow conference, "Intelligent failures are OK. Fail fast, fail cheap and move on."

But don't let the risk of failure stop you from trying. "You may be disappointed if you fail," Beverly Sills once said, "but you are doomed if you don't try."

And my daughter? Well, she gave track a try and failed. After a season of experimentation and competitive disappointment, she's decided that track isn't her thing. Who knows? Maybe she'll change her mind next year and try again. She loves to run, after all.

In the mean time, she's already moved on to the next challenge: golf. Her first lesson was the same day as the track meet. And guess what?

She loved it.


Bill Sheridan