Don’t fear failure: It’s okay to be human

Last updated on July 3rd, 2019 at 04:31 pm

When I tell CEOs that they need to give themselves and their employees permission to be human, I sometimes get skeptical looks. It sounds so far from the conversations we have about operational efficiencies, priorities and performance that it may sound unrelated or even hokey.

But really, giving permission to be human is a reference to the fact that as humans, we all have a set of natural strengths and natural weaknesses, and when we focus on developing and leveraging our natural strengths, we grow. If we focus on and obsess over our weaknesses and past failures, we become our own impediment to realizing our full potential.

Failure is not fatal

It’s human nature to have weaknesses and to experience failure. That’s why we try to design systems and processes that minimize the opportunity for human error – for small things like spelling mistakes on a website or bigger things like piloting a commercial jet.

But our egos don’t like failure. We want to be good at everything, or at least not so bad that our public image is diminished. So what’s the problem with hiding weakness or a failure? No Olympic athlete, successful CEO, or genius artist or engineer has gotten to where they are by thinking, “At least I never made a mistake.” Successful people have screwed up plenty – dozens, hundreds, thousands of times before they realized their full potential.

So why do we keep looking at failure so negatively?

Many organizations encourage this fear of failure, creating and maintaining a culture in which mistakes are seen as career-enders and the high performers are expected to be flawless. These environments tend to be rigid, high-stress and low in morale, for starters. People wear a veneer of perfection but spend every day feeling like a fraud and waiting for others to find out.

What happens to performance when people are afraid to fail? They hide things. They try to make themselves indispensable in other ways, which might mean hoarding information or work. And they’re afraid to innovate, to push themselves and others to take risks – all qualities that businesses (and people) need to grow.

No one has ever ended the year saying, “I’m proud of how well we stayed exactly the same.”

What I want to drive home is that failure gives you freedom – the freedom to experiment, to learn and to succeed. And when you embrace failure as a tool for growth, you will create acceleration and momentum personally and professionally.

A new spin on strengths and weaknesses

People who view their failures as critical building blocks to future growth are what I call accelerators. They accept their goof-ups as a part of life, learning, growth and a necessary step to acquiring insights that will only make them better. They don’t beat themselves up.

People who are afraid of stepping out of their comfort zone tend to be overly focused on the potential of failure and on their ANTs (automatic negative thoughts) and insecurities. When you’re mostly looking at yourself through this negative lens, hearing every negative voice in your head, you won’t see what’s most important to your success: your natural strengths.

Permission to be human means we acknowledge that we all have a set of natural strengths and natural weaknesses. And the secret to achieving sustainable growth is to focus on developing and fully leveraging your natural strengths. This is what creates meaningful acceleration and sustainable success, individually and corporately.

I find that many people approach having both strengths and weaknesses the wrong way. They identify their natural weaknesses and then work very hard to bolster them. Although it may be important to shore up some key areas of weakness, if strengthening your set of natural weaknesses becomes your primary focus, then at the end of your life you’re going to have a stronger set of natural born weaknesses, while having missed the opportunity to realize your full potential. Conversely, if you spent that same amount of time fully developing and then leveraging your natural strengths, you will have created real success. 

Imagine how much more you could accomplish if you changed your perspective on failures.

What if you saw yourself through the lens of your own genius and not your insecurities? What if you identified two or three natural strengths, worked to develop them into super-strengths, and aligned the majority of your responsibilities to more fully leverage them? What else could you accomplish for yourself, your family, and your company?

Start this conversation with yourself and decide what’s possible for you.

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