Fail Well: Take the Right Risks and Make the Most of Your Mistakes

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Newsflash: No one enjoys failing. Our brains are wired to be risk averse.

But failing well—in small-scale, reversible, informative ways—is an important part of learning … and ultimately of being successful.

“Failing … acts to demonstrate limitations, to force us to rethink or reevaluate how we do things and to learn how to do them better,” explains Agustìn Fuentes Ph.D. for

stressed anxious woman in glasses biting fingernailsYou’re not alone if you like to stick with what you know and what you do best. Out of habit (or fear) many of us repeat safe, “successful” choices again and again, steering clear of risk and uncertainty because we have little experience with it. But choosing to stay comfortable often limits our growth and means we miss out on opportunities for success.

“Success is a lousy teacher,” says Bill Gates. “It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose.”

And with the rapid pace of innovation and change in today’s business world, standing still—choosing a risk-free course—is often a sure path to losing.

Now, before you jump in head first, there is a right way to take risks, make mistakes and fail. (And you thought failing would be easy …) Getting comfortable with blunders, being smart about our risks and learning as much as we can from mistakes are all part of failing well (not the same as regular failing).

Here are some considerations when doing your very best at failing:

  1. Conquer your fear of failure. Start by considering how you define failure, suggests Theo Psaousides Ph.D. for Now “switch from thinking about failures to thinking about discrepancies between what you hope to achieve and what you might achieve.” Make effort a part of your definition of success, because effort and small setbacks put you closer to your goal. Develop a growth mindset by seeing small ways you can improve. It’s also important to remember that the status quo has its own set of risks.
  2. GettyImages-836568604crop.jpgTake calculated, small risks. Limit the downside of failure by testing ideas or breaking them into smaller parts. Author Peter Sims calls on us to be experimental innovators when we’re working in the unknown, to help limit risk. Another secret to success suggested by Ralph Heath of Synergy Leadership Group is to operate “inside your strength zone but outside your comfort zone.”
  3. Own your failures. Don’t blame others or outside factors when you fail or make mistakes. Pointing fingers keeps you from learning from your mistakes suggests Mindy Crary for You’re mentally giving up control when you do this. Instead, take a step back and objectively analyze where you went wrong. And keep your head up. You should be proud of what you attempted and learned.
  4. Differentiate between productive failure and unproductive success. An unproductive success occurs when something great happens but no one knows (or stops to consider) why. Productive failure occurs when you gain insight and understanding even though the undertaking didn’t go as planned. Stop long enough after any success or failure to learn from it.
  5. Teamwork Challange Concept.Prepare for things to go wrong. Take time to consider all the ways a project or new venture could go wrong before you start. This helps to ensure early detection and healthy attitudes toward failures when they happen, reports the “Here’s that thing we thought might happen … We were smart enough to anticipate it.”
  6. Improve future performance by learning from mistakes and reducing your weaknesses. When failure leads to improved future performance, mistakes are valuable. That’s why it’s so critical to take time to dissect failures to understand the lessons our mistakes have for us. A systematic approach will give you clues to how to do it better and correct any shortfalls, suggests author Kara Penn. If the mistake was caused by missing skills, take time to learn so you’re better prepared next time.

It’s easy to avoid short-term failure by staying in your comfort zone. But there are great opportunities to learn and innovate when you take calculated risks and make mistakes. This kind of productive failure prepares you and your organization for the future.

“Success is the end product of the process of learning, something we inevitably do if we fail,” writes Atalanta Beaumont for


Agree? Disagree? Add your insightful comments here.