The 'Edge Report

Paying Your Tuition: Failure is the Tuition of Success

One of the most important life lessons my father taught me was that I would only succeed when I stopped fearing failure.

Quite simply failure is the tuition for success. And you can’t go to school without paying tuition (I have three college age kids…I know about tuition!).

What does fear of failure look like? Have you ever seen a team steamroll their opposition during the regular season only to lose in the playoffs? What happened? Quite simply, they never played tough enough competition to see their faults and weaknesses sufficiently to improve. When they finally met better teams in the playoffs, they weren’t prepared. And so they were beaten.

Along the same lines, have you ever seen a straight “A” high school student get humbled by their college freshman physics course? What happened? They didn’t develop the study habits, never competed against equally talented students and never dreamed they might get tested on material in the book never presented in the class!

I could go on with more examples from daily life. But I’m sure everyone understands the higher your desired level of success, the more likely you are to fail. And more importantly, the more you’re able to learn from your failures.  

So, what does this look like in business?

The most significant result of fear of failure is frozen decision- making. Products and services never come out of development. Organizational structures never adapt to new environments. Old technologies hang on well past their usefulness. In general, you’re just stuck in time.

The worst thing about this is that the less you change, the more each individual change becomes bigger and bigger. And that means the change is more painful and comes with greater risk.

When business leaders foster an environment of support, employees aren’t scared to fail. They try things. Some work. Some don’t work. It’s not perfect. In fact, it’s downright ugly and messy. But it’s better than the alternative. Because people who are scared to fail, get run over.

But let’s not think you simply flail around challenging yourself to climb Mt. Everest, live to tell about it and magically improve.

There is a way to successfully fail. Here are some basics to failing…

Fail Fast. Once you have set forth a challenge, do it without hesitation. Without hesitation doesn’t mean without forethought that includes properly defining the problem, where you operate today, where you’d like to be and mapping a plan to get there. By all means, build the foundation. But remember the foundation isn’t the objective. So once you’ve thought things through, jump in the pool and get past the initial blast of cold from change. Do it enough times and change won’t seem like such a big deal.

Fail Small. If you change fast, each attempt brings less change with it. And thus any failed changes relate to smaller bites of change. Small changes carry less risk. They are less costly and disruptive to customers, team members and all stakeholders. It also takes less to recover from them so you are ready for the next change sooner. It simply starts to feed on itself.

Fail Early. Start taking risks and failing right from the beginning. The earlier you fail, the earlier you learn. As a result, each incremental attempt at success, which is riddled with risk, is done so with an increasingly stronger foundation.

When you cut through it all, failure is something we need to embrace. I’m not talking about learning that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger sort of failure. I’m talking about making failure the foundation of learning. Innovation can’t happen without failure. It’s not a dirty word. It is tuition payments. Set intelligent challenges. Define problems and develop plans. But don’t be scared. Instead, fail fast, fail small and fail early.

About the Author

John Lopez-Ona is Chief Strategy & Corporate Development Officer at HealthEdge

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