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Failure. It’s probably not something you want to think about. Failing is scary. Failing can result in major consequences that might seem insurmountable.
“Failure is hard,” says Krystal Covington, a WGU MBA graduate and celebrated speaker and business consultant. “I’ve made so many mistakes, and even to this day I get mini panic attacks sometimes when big things happen because mistakes at this level mean serious repercussions.”
Fear of failure can paralyze professionals at all levels, and it can be especially damaging for women, minorities, and others whose voices have been historically underrepresented and who feel extra pressure to over-perform.
And yet, most success stories start with terrifying tales of falling flat on one’s face. Embracing failure can actually be a key strategy for success.
There are several ways failure can be a crucial precursor to success. Here are just a few.
Failure shows us our opportunities.
The best software is made better through bug fixes. An athlete perfects her skills by spotting the weaknesses in her technique, not by reveling in her strengths. Even kindergartners quickly discover that the lessons they learn best come from first getting things wrong.
“Mistakes make us stronger and they help us identify broken links in the chain of our structures,” says Krystal Covington. “When we find a break in the chain we just need to reinforce it and provide new structures to keep our defenses strong.”
In any field, the key to success is taking an intentional, active approach to identifying failures and turning them into pathways to growth.
“I figure out why I have failed and work to rectify the deficit or reason I failed,” says Martina Wolter, Chief Nursing Officer at Mayo Clinic Health System and a WGU grad in M.S. Nursing–Leadership and Management. “I always look at problems as something to be solved. Sometimes the solution is easy, and sometimes it takes a while. Those that are harder to solve, of course, are more rewarding once they are.”
The key, Martina reminds us, is that failure gives us a chance to accumulate new skills and strengths by recognizing the things we can’t do—yet.
“Don’t forget to use your resources,” she says. “No one person has all the knowledge and I take no pride in thinking I do. Reach out to others and surround you with others who also want to be problem solvers.”
Failure is a natural side effect of doing something new.
You can’t achieve great things without taking on new challenges. And no one—no one—takes on new challenges and succeeds every time. A journey without failure is a journey to nowhere.
“I have learned to take risks in my career,” says HCA Healthcare Nursing Director Shannon Ramirez, who earned her B.S. Nursing at WGU. “That is the only way you can grow. Taking on additional responsibilities or new roles can be risky but can lead to additional growth opportunities.”
If you think of failures as battle wounds, focusing on the damage they caused, you’re only telling half the story. Instead, think of them as battle scars—proof that you faced the unknown and came out the other side, maybe not unscathed but richer for the experience.
Failure is a natural remedy to your rut.
“I believe taking risks keep you fresh and engaged,” Martina Wolter says.
If you’re stuck and need something new, sometimes the best way to get there is through failure. Think of it as a forced refresh—the catalyst you need to start over.
And starting over is often just what the doctor ordered. In fact, the biggest barrier to success is usually stagnation, not failure.
“I became a much more astute business person when it became harder to stay in business—when the recession hit in 2008, and when the market got more crowded as green products became more mainstream,” says Sheryl Woodhouse Keese, WGU MBA alum and Chief Operating Officer at music publicity firm rock paper scissors, inc. “I struggled for several years until I had to sell the business and move on—an extremely difficult thing for me. I’ve now learned how good it can be to start over.”
Today, she counts among her successes: two “really satisfying jobs,” international travel, serving on her city’s Commission for Sustainability, and earning her MBA at WGU. Sheryl says she probably wouldn’t have experienced those accomplishments if not for what seemed at the time like failure.
So if it’s a fear of failure that’s keeping you from achieving your full potential or living the life you desire, embrace the fear. Get out there and fail—you’ll be glad you did.
Fail first, fail hard, and fail fast.
For more inspiration and insight into the benefits of failure, join us at WGU Sage Talks to hear from Reshma Saujani, founder and CEO of Girls Who Code and author of Women Who Don’t Wait in Line: Break the Mold, Lead the Way.
Reshma advocates for a new model of female leadership focused on embracing risk and failure. Her Sage Talk presentation, “How to Fail First, Fail Hard, and Fail Fast” is free to the public via live streaming or in person at the Salt Lake City Library on February 22, 2018. Learn more and register here.
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