“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” —Thomas A. Edison

There is no more gleeful squeal then from a kid on a bike discovering balance, with hands removed from the handlebar, focused only on the moment, and operating with absolutely no fear of failure. Imagine operating in a similar fashion during your next presentation—confident in a positive outcome, with a mind clear of distraction and free of the fear of disaster—and the kind of result you would deliver. From the many surveys conducted about human fears, the fear of public speaking is routinely at the top of the list, well above the fear of death. What’s that all about? Why is fear of failure when speaking in public so prevalent in humans, when speaking is a skill we practice hours every day for most of our lives?

I suspect that many psychologists would point to our training in school, K-12 and through college, as a possible culprit. We are conditioned to “get it right” when responding to prompts or questions, and told the rewards will be many when we do—good grades, happy parents, a bright future. Then we embark on our career path, heavily reliant upon what we know to be true: get it right, don’t mess up, good things ahead. Depending on the culture of the organization we join, failure could be considered a career ender. Others psychologist might point, in related fashion, to the primal human need for social acceptance, prompting the fear of rejection. In either context, standing up and speaking in public is more like, “Look Mom, I’m petrified!” We fear failure.

Failing at Failing Forward

In our quest for achievement, I fear that the benefits of failure are too easily overlooked, regarded as inconsequential, or altogether avoided. I fear that the DRIFT theory (Do it Right the First Time) that appropriately supports managerial accounting applied to just-in-time inventory, permeates organizations as a general business rule. No question, getting the right results matter; yet, the expectation of results that transcend the status quo are nullified by the DRIFT theory. Ask Thomas Edison. Failure can be experienced as an accelerator for growth in the sustainable character qualities of motivation, creativity, resilience, and courage that are the bedrock for producing extraordinary ‘getting it right’ outcomes. Ask any top performer in business about the key to their success and they will share a story of coming back from a failure, failing forward. They have achieved the freedom conveyed by Zig Ziglar, the renowned public speaker, when he stated, “Failure is an event, not a person. Yesterday ended last night.” Absent this freedom, I fear too many organizations will fail at failing forward, and opportunities for greatness will be missed.

The US soccer team will not play in the 2018 World Cup for the first time since 1986, after losing to a last place team in a qualifying round on 10 October. Is this a failure? In the context of the event, yes. The coach re-hired to turn the team around has been re-fired. Most likely, the team roster will be re-cast. The US youth program will be re-evaluated. The causes for the team’s lackluster performance will be re-hashed. It will be interesting to see what is newly discovered by failing forward, for therein lies the possibility of renewal.

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