Principle #10 – Fail Forward

The Importance of learning how to Fail Forward

I didn’t fail one thousand times. The light bulb

was an invention with one thousand steps.

—Thomas Edison


Since we were children, most of us have been taught to avoid failure. In fact, if we ever received an F or otherwise failed at something, there’s a chance we didn’t simply feel that we needed improvement but, instead, that we had been labeled as failures in and of ourselves.

In this subtle way across countless experiences, it has become embedded in our mindsets from very young childhood to avoid making an attempt when we suspect we might fail.


Two Nobel Prize–winning psychologists, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, set out to understand why we humans go to such lengths to avoid losing. They found that the negative impact of a loss—that includes both the sense of loss and the memory of loss— has a greater effect on us than any positive impact of success. Zig Ziglar may have gifted us with the inspirational quote “Failure is an event, not a person,” but what Kahneman and Tversky showed is that we have quite a lot of trouble separating the two.


Research also shows that fear of failure paired with feelings of incompetence leads

to self-sabotaging activity, including procrastination.32 We tend to think that not trying is a guaranteed protection from failure, but I want to suggest that when we don’t try because we fear falling flat on our faces, we’re failing by our inaction in that moment. The antidote to inaction in the face of failure is to understand that we never want to fail at failure itself.


We might all take a lesson from that plucky little fish Dory, the forgetful blue tang introduced to us in 2003. Ellen DeGeneres, who voiced Dory’s character in the film, revealed in an NPR interview that the opportunity to voice Dory came at a particularly difficult time in her own life. The character of Dory maintains an attitude in the face of adversity and encourages Marlin to “just keep swimming.” When we “just keep swimming,” we’re pulling on threads of optimism and positivity, literally deciding not to take no for an answer.


Keeping going is both the practice and product of resiliency.


In the film The Dawn Wall, one of its stars, Kevin Jorgeson, clings by his fingernails to the Dawn Wall of El Capitan. Along with Tommy Caldwell, Jorgeson spent

seven years preparing to assault a 3,200-foot-high slab of granite wall that had never been climbed. Over nineteen days, and halfway up, Kevin found himself confronted by a class 5.14 D pitch, which is listed as the toughest on the planet.


Both athletes had practiced their entire lives for this event and attempted these same moves tens of thousands of times. Over the following seven days and eleven attempts, Kevin just could not complete the crossing. He kept tearing his fingers apart and continuing to fall. Then finally, in front of the world’s media, battling fatigue and the fear of letting down his climbing partner, who was running out of time, something changed in Kevin’s mind that enabled him to make the crossing. On his next attempt he succeeded, and he and Tommy went onward and upward to make history.


In 2001, Barbara Corcoran sold the Corcoran Group, the biggest residential real estate firm in

New York, for $66 million. In all her business dealings, Barbara has been most appreciative

of people who, like her, approach their work with a killer instinct, a sense that there’s nothing to lose and much to gain from being absolutely tenacious about their goals. Barbara is also a TEDx speaker and her TEDx Talk was entitled “Rethinking Failure.” I interviewed Barbara on a rainy evening on June 4, 2020 as she bounced across mid-town Manhattan in the back of a car.


SL: Without action there’s no learning. Without learning we don’t progress. But how does failing fit into this for you?

BC: I’m uncomfortable with sitting still. And so, I’d rather shoot at a lot and see what sticks rather than think things through or analyze them to death. That old expression “Ready, fire, aim” is the right way for me because I’m already firing, and if it doesn’t work, I’ll take another shot.


SL: You are known for having amazing teams working for you. What are your secrets?

BC: You have to consciously promote failure to make sure people are at their creative best. And that’s what I’ve done my whole career….When you put a bunch of those people together, you have a creative organization…. If I had a spectacular failure, I would stand up and start talking about it. Then people would see how cool that was and would know it’s OK in our company to try all kinds of things.


SL: We have spoken often about persistence and how it creates resiliency. What do people need to work on to become truly resilient?

BC: Whether you’re talking about raising a child or getting an employee to become better than they thought they could ever be, I would say the most important thing is to not allow them to feel sorry for themselves. The minute there’s any kind of setback, you’ve got to handle it like, “Well that’s to be expected. Now, what do we do next?” The difference between successful people and others is how much time they spend feeling sorry for themselves.


In my opinion, Winston Churchill summed it up best: “Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.”

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