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Healing Space | Learning how to fail well

We are so focused on success that we forget to learn how to fail. It’s equally important.

May 28, 2022 / 08:09 PM IST
You are more likely to allow your mistakes to refine your technique when you take ownership of your failures, accept feedback, and give yourself other chances. (Illustration by Suneesh K.)

You are more likely to allow your mistakes to refine your technique when you take ownership of your failures, accept feedback, and give yourself other chances. (Illustration by Suneesh K.)

Whether edtech or fintech, several start-ups are teetering on the edge. There has been a spate of layoffs, investments are being pared back and ‘cut the burn’ is the mantra of the hour. The start-up ecosystem feels like it’s bearing the burden of failure and it can feel really personal, especially if you are heavily invested in a venture.

Thing is, the old trope of failures being the stepping stone to success feels like a cliché, something we say to ourselves as consolation. In reality, none of us wants to fail or knows how to fail. We avoid failure as if it were an Healing Space logo for Gayatri Jayaram column on mental healthinfection, afraid that if we catch it once, we may go down a spiral we won’t recover from. It is as necessary to learn how to fail as how to succeed, not just the steps but what to do once you are in either state.

The steps of success seem sorted: have a great idea, pitch it, work hard, invest, be one-minded, network, raise funding, etc. There are a whole lot of things you can do. Failing at the same venture can be a lot easier, too, if you just went by it step by step.

Should this fail? This seems like an unnecessary question because who chooses to fail? Yet it’s the most necessary decision you will make. Firstly, it pulls you out of victim mode. Your failure was not something done to you by forces beyond your control. It has been a conscious decision you made after taking all available factors into account, keeping the best interests of your company, employees, and self in mind.

Sometimes it’s better to let a career, a relationship, or a venture go. You calculated that throwing more effort, energy, time, resources at the venture in order to save it was self-defeating. Once you’ve decided to pull the plug, the rest of it is just logistics and emotion management.

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It’s arriving at this decision that is the hard part. And you can go about it as a victim, feeling defeated and taking it personally, or ride the wave like a conscious decision maker, taking into account economy, business environment, resource crunch and your ability to fulfil your commitments.

When deciding on this, you also get to time your exit, which allows you to save face, resources, and honour what commitments you can, preserving your professional integrity. Having that honest chat with an investor or employer may feel scary, but choosing to walk away after knowing you have exhausted all options you consider feasible is actually a sign of great maturity. Like you have a stop-price for your stocks, having a stop-price for your venture is conserving your resources to fight another day.

Is this difference only in your head, though? How does it matter to anyone looking in from the outside whether you are a victim or a conscious decision maker? To everyone else, you have failed, and that can feel humiliating when you feel judged or mocked. The difference is in your ability to have self-compassion.

Research shows that people who show themselves compassion give themselves leeway when they fail, bouncebackability. They take into account the environmental feedback, forgive themselves, and adapt to incoming information. People who don’t, who blame themselves and the environmental factors, and tend to become defensive and rigid against incoming information.

In short, you are more likely to allow your mistakes to refine your technique when you take ownership of your failures, take in feedback, and give yourself other chances. This works as much for athletes and sportspeople as for entrepreneurs. You also give yourself the ability to judge yourself by your internal process and less by external perception. This allows you to see a possibility for success when others only see an end game.

When you take in information about how and why you failed, you’re able to put it into play to change the game. You learn about timing, about reading the market, about customer and client feedback that you have given too much or not enough weightage to, and you spot the things you missed. That’s all vital information that can alter the next trajectory.

logo-how-to-failAnd the moment you see what you have missed, you have equipped yourself to play again. Since you’re not a victim to fate and luck, but now own your choices, you are not rolling the dice, you are not gambling on ventures. You are now consciously redirecting your energies for the next venture or the next edition of the failed venture. What you have done is shifted the goalpost. A shifting goal post may feel like what you don’t want to do, because you have been sold on the theory of one mindedness. But one-mindedness only works when you’re close to hitting the target. It’s a win strategy that doesn’t translate into a loss template.

You have to think differently in failure. In loss, breadth of perspective allows you to see the landscape and gauge what strategy is best for you. Too close and you miss the forest for the trees, you miss important clues, you read the market wrong. Step back. Read the landscape. You assumed there was only one way to one goal, and missing that was loss. Are there other ways and other aligned goals that you can meet? Maybe they will get you halfway there? Maybe they will use the resources you have built and pivot you in a different direction.  Take that call.

Failing is an art that requires us to depersonalize. When we fail well, strategically, we set ourselves up to win.

Healing Space 55 box How-to-fail-well
Gayatri is a mind body spirit therapist and author of 'Sit Your Self Down', a novice’s journey to the heart of Vipassana, and 'Anitya', a guide to coping with change. [ @G_y_tri]
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