You can’t be a loser if you are a learner. Arny Mindell
Early failure can be crucial to success in innovation. Because the faster you find weakness during an innovation cycle, the faster you can improve what needs fixing. Tom and David Kelly
I paint best, when I couldn’t care less. When my expectations are low because I’m sure I suck anyway. Maybe it’s dusk and I can’t see well. I grab a canvas that’s already been painted, find some old tubes with ill-fitting caps and lumpy crusts and scrape yesterday’s paint from the palette. Tada. Now that I know I’m not wasting good paint, I’m willing to make the most terrific mess.
With any innovation, failure is crucial to success. Take Thomas Edison—he went through over 10,000 unsuccessful prototypes before landing on a commercially viable incandescent light. One could say he was prolific at failing. But he said,
“I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work."
It’s one thing to fail privately, to make a shitty painting or be working on a project no one knows about. It’s another to fail in public. Which is everywhere now.
One of my most dramatic professional failures happened early in my career. I was teaching conflict resolution to a group of a rather conservative mediators in Dunblane, Scotland, a town made infamous a few years later, in 1996, for a deadly primary school massacre.
I was teaching skills designed to de-escalate criticism and verbal attack aimed against those in leadership roles. I did not intend for it to be a live demonstration! I outlined various strategies based on my Processwork training: take your own side, inhabit the opponent’s position, criticize yourself and learn from the feedback, use the opportunity to teach your critics how to bring their message across more effectively, admit defeat, apologize, do something disarming, irrational or crazy.
I explained that this was not a program and these were not linear steps one must follow. Rather, when we are being verbally criticized or attacked, we are called to notice what arises naturally from within us, and to communicate that experience clearly. If I want to defend myself, I should do so. If I suspect I am wrong, I should state that. And so on.
You might guess what happened. With each brilliant theoretical gem came a challenge from the group.
And they didn’t relent.
Against my own advice, I tried to demonstrate the skills. I took my side. I took their side. I tried to teach the critic how to do a better job.
Picture it: I’m cheerful, outgoing, optimistic, American, young and female. Full of good intention and a hint of hubris. The seminar attendees are reserved and gritty Scots, mostly men, all seasoned professionals. I want, no need, their respect and recognition. And I think that doesn’t show.
I wish I could recount the shots that were fired. The low blows. The sexism. Comments on my age and inexperience. But that’s the thing with trauma. We forget.
In the end I failed—congruently. Which, in this case meant I ended up in tears. I admitted that most of what I taught was theoretical, that I hadn’t used these methods outside of practice sessions—until now.
I admitted they were my first. And that it hurt.
Much to my surprise, the entire atmosphere changed. They not just softened towards me personally, but they expressed genuine appreciation for my courage and transparency.
From that early failure, I learned that my authentic experience and vulnerability are gifts I can bring to groups. This lesson has shaped my development as a human being and as a professional.
What have you learned from your failures and setbacks? How have those lessons shaped you?