Learning from failure


The teacher walked up and down the aisle handing out magic markers and brightly colored folders like you might find at an office supply store. I got a red one, the girl in front of me got an orange one. It was the first day of school, I was starting the sixth grade, and, of course, I had first day of school jitters.

fail-1714367_640We hadn’t gotten too far into the day. The teacher, a tall, relatively young man, had just introduced himself and talked about the year and how there would be changes for the class. He was getting us ready for junior-senior high school and there would be more expected of us. He used big words like responsibility and expectations. He talked about how we were going to work hard and would need to listen and follow direction. I remember feeling butterflies in my stomach, but excited too.

He told us that he would be using the folders to hold important papers to take home to our parents. He asked us to use the magic markers and in our best penmanship, write on the cover our last and first name, in that exact order. I started writing and immediately realized I had messed up. I had started with my first name. I tried to fix it, but with the thick magic marker ink tip, there was little I could do, but make a bigger mess.

I groaned. I turned the folder over, but I knew that wouldn’t fix it. The teacher had spent twenty minutes talking about the importance of listening with our ears and not our mouths and two minutes into the work time I had done the exact thing the teacher asked us not to do: I failed to pay attention to his instructions.

Something’s not right

error-24842_640The teacher must have noticed my darting eyes and growing apprehension. At this point, I should probably explain that I was coming off an emotional summer. A few weeks earlier, I watched as my father convulsed on our sofa as he suffered a debilitating heart attack. I felt powerless as EMTs helped get him into an ambulance and raced to our local hospital. Two times I thought he stopped breathing, but each time he surprised me with a grunt or a groan. He spent weeks in the hospital recovering, but he would never fully recover from the near-fatal attack.

And now school was starting and I was still very raw with emotion. So when I sat in class, a ball of nerves and made the mistake, the tears started welling up inside of me and came rushing out. I quickly wiped them away. “I’m a sixth grader now, I’m too big for this,” I told myself.

My teacher though came up, saw my tears, and whispered to me that it was okay, that I could go to the restroom if I wanted and come back when I felt better. I wasn’t out of the room long, but when I came back, the teacher had an understanding smile and had already moved onto another activity. In fact, as my luck would have it, he collected the folders and I don’t think we ever saw them again.

Failing forward

rejected-5254323_640I’ve thought often about the incident over the years. I cringe at how something so silly, so simple, brought me to tears, but I also understand that I wasn’t upset over the folder, but everything going on in my life.

When I get past the embarrassment, I realize that I learned three important lessons about myself from the experience: I have high standards for myself; I hate missing out on those goals; and, probably most important, I hate letting others who I respect and love down.

I’ve changed much over the years since, but those three lessons remain vital to who I am. Fast forward to two weeks ago, a colleague brainstormed late on a Friday afternoon on how we could help our client. I offered some recommendations to help make her improvement even better. Next thing I knew I had signed up to work on a presentation, a new client pitch of sorts, on top of everything else I had due.

I should have waved my hands up and backed off the work. I should have held up a white flag. Instead, I spent my weekend working round-the-clock to get the presentation ready, something that normally would have taken months to get together, for an 8 a.m. Monday meeting.

Oh, what have I signed up for now? The work was not my best work, but I got it done on time.

Looking at failure differently

dawn-3253133_640With all that said, failure is all the rage now in the business world. Business executives and leaders have written countless self-help books, journal articles, and webinar lectures on the power of failure. They like to talk about how you don’t grow if you don’t come clean on your mistakes. They say you should embrace failure as a necessary part of innovation and use these attempts to learn, grow, and move forward.

I usually roll my eyes at such talk. Like most things in life, I find there’s never a one-sized-fits-all business trick or tool that’s going to lead everyone to success. However, I find that coming to grips with my failings, with my mistakes, is one concept I can get behind.

sunrise-3956831_640I’m a grown man, I’ve long moved past that eleven-year-old kid, but I still make mistakes, most are significantly bigger than messing up a folder, but I’m still growing, I’m still changing. The world didn’t come to an end because I wrote my name wrong and the world didn’t turn because of a mistake I might have made on my job. No, instead, I learned from my mistakes, looked for ways to grow and improve, and continued on my journey.

Isn’t that what life is all about?

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