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There's a Fortune in Failure

These five steps will help you turn a stumble into a success.

By Gary Bradt, Ph.D.

It took Thomas Edison over a thousand tries to get the light bulb just right. Yet how many of us give up if we don?t nail something perfectly the first time out? The best baseball hitters in the game fail approximately two out of every three times they step up to the plate. Still, how many of us don?t step up and try something new unless we can be assured of success first? The problem is how we think about ourselves in relation to failure and its consequences.

Failure can be the fast track to success if you recognize and use it the right way. It?s all in how you choose to size it up. The following are five ways to think about failure, and how to manage it. Embracing these concepts will help insure your long-term success in all of your endeavors, both in business and in life.

1. Define failure as learning.
When a toddler falls down, do we say, ?Man, they really messed up!? or rather ?Wonderful, they?re learning to walk!? Yet when we fall down?blow the sales presentation, for example?we often exclaim, ?I failed!? Worse yet, we may define ourselves as failures. It?s better to view failure as a temporary and necessary step on the way to where you want to be. Just like falling down is a predictable and inevitable process for the toddler learning to walk, so are occasional failures along the way to success in whatever you attempt.

In fact, it?s hard to improve if you don?t fail, because failure delineates clearly where the opportunities for improvement lie. So, when you do fall down, don?t label yourself a failure. Instead, recover quickly from the temporary disappointment by asking ?What can I learn from this? What worked and what didn?t? How can I do it better next time?? Then, follow the toddler?s example: Get up with a smile on your face and try again, knowing you are better for the experience.

It?s better to view failure as a temporary and necessary step on the way to where you want to be.

2. Manage expectations, yours and theirs.
Sometimes the problem with failure lies in unrealistic expectations when trying something new. We expect everyone to embrace the new strategy after a single meeting. We assume customers will flock to our latest and greatest product immediately. Rarely, however, are such scenarios the case. Perception about failure on the back-end can be reduced or eliminated by managing expectations on the front-end. Begin new ventures with optimism tempered by realism, and help your colleagues and clients do the same. Expect problems, and let everyone know you will be ready to solve them. That way, when problems do arise, they will help reinforce your credibility instead of damage it. And, problems won?t lead you and others to assume you?ve failed; rather, problems will be viewed for what they are: road signs pointing the way to progress.

3. Stop trying to be perfect.
Sports psychologist Bob Rotella wrote a helpful little book called Golf Is Not a Game of Perfect. Golf is not a game of perfect; nor is business?or just about any other venture. Trying to be perfect can keep you from trying new and untested methods for reaching your goals. The valuable experiments that ultimately lead to success will never happen if you are afraid to attempt them in the first place. Rather than strive for perfection, strive for action?bold, resolute action in the direction of your goals. You can make midcourse corrections, but you?ll never have the chance if you never get started. Aiming for perfection is fine; expecting it, however, is unrealistic. Let your unrealistic expectations of perfection go, and your results will start to flow.

4. Manage fear before it manages you.
Perhaps nothing holds us back as much as fear. Fear is our natural protection against threats to our physical survival. Too often however, fear gets triggered when physical survival is not an issue. Physical harm won?t follow if your idea gets shot down at a meeting. You won?t lose an appendage if you return from your sales presentation empty-handed. Just because fear often gets triggered in these situations doesn?t mean you have to succumb to it. Gather yourself, take a deep breath, tell yourself you?re OK and go about taking your next step forward, whatever it may be.

Let your unrealistic expectations of perfection go and your results will start to flow.

5. Stay in the moment.
?What if?? can be a very useful question for anticipating scenarios and stirring creativity: What if we doubled our marketing efforts next quarter? What if we could take the best aspects of our competitor?s services and roll them into ours? What if we could use our expertise to aid the less fortunate in our community? Good questions all. Unfortunately, too often our internal dialogue goes more like this: ?What if I say something dumb at the meeting and everyone laughs and decides I?m stupid?? or ?What if the economy takes a turn for the worse?? We begin to imagine negative ?what if? scenarios and put so much mental energy into them that we have little left over for more positive endeavors, and failures mount.

To counter this trend, notice when you are becoming anxious. Then, notice your thoughts. Likely, you have mentally raced ahead to some scary place that doesn?t exist. Bring yourself back to the present. Ask yourself, ?What?s going on right here, right now?? It?s likely not nearly as bad as what you were imagining. Dealing with the realities of the moment will help you avoid creating unnecessary failures in the future.

Used with permission. All rights reserved.

Gary Bradt, Ph.D., author of The Ring in the Rubble: Dig Through Change and Find Your Next Golden Opportunity, is a speaker on leadership, addressing corporate audiences including IBM, GM, American Express, GE, eBay, FedEx and NASA. Contact him through his website



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