The Value of Failure on the Path to Success

Ratna Golaknath

Women Entrepreneurs in India

There’s an opportunity for a new role at work that’s exciting but largely uncharted territory and your boss offers it to you. What do you do?

Risk. Whether it’s driving a car or trying something new, we evaluate risk at every moment of every day. It is the core of our thinking, decision-making existence. Yet to most, it’s a big scary word that often comes hand-in-hand with another big scary word – failure. In spite of having heard the familiar tropes all our lives, when faced with a risky situation we hesitate and retreat into the safety of our comfort zone. However, in the modern workplace and in our careers, taking risks, standing out in the crowd, and driving innovation are required traits providing us the impetus to grow as leaders. So how can we embrace risk and failure to achieve growth for ourselves and our organizations?

Also Read: An Interview with Milee Ashwarya, Penguin Random House

Let’s first acknowledge that sometimes there are very real and tangible circumstances that influence our appetites for risk. If I were a single parent or a caregiver or the only source of income for my family, I would be compelled to be more risk-averse in my decisions. However, I posit that the framework for evaluating risk would essentially remain the same.

The first step is to ask the obvious questions – what is this worth to me? What will this cost me, in terms of time, effort, money, emotional well-being? What happens if I succeed? And what happens if I fail? Ah! There it is, that question again – what if I fail?

In my experience, this is where most of our analysis gets somewhat muddied. I have found that minority voices (such as women in tech) most often tend to exaggerate two things – (1) the probability of failure; and (2) the impact of failure.

 The tendency to exaggerate the probability of failure has been widely discussed –  our lack of self-confidence, impostor syndrome, overly-harsh inner critics all hold us back from believing that we are truly deserving of our successes. For e.g. –  in the situation above I’ll tend to say “oh I’ll be terrible at it” and not take that risk. But I have no historical evidence to say I’d be terrible. On the contrary I have enough evidence to say I have been able to learn new things fairly quickly.

Say the worst does happen, I take a risk and I do fail. Then what?

So let’s go past that then and talk about the impact of failure. Say the worst does happen, I take a risk and I do fail. Then what?  Here’s a true story —  I had a job a few years ago where I honestly was a complete failure. I simply did not suit the role, I made too many mistakes, I was unhappy, my manager was unhappy and my output, to be honest, was quite abysmal. My response to the situation was denial. How could I fail? It simply wasn’t possible. So I did what we’ve all been taught to do – I put my head down, blinders on, dug deep and worked hard at it until I figured it out and reached some modicum of acceptable output. To many that would sound like a success story. To me, it’s one of my biggest regrets. I wasted 3 years of my life being miserable at a job I will never do again trying to prove to a group of people that I wasn’t a failure. It ate away at my self-esteem. It stunted my growth. I lost sight of the big picture because that’s how focused I was at not failing.

Embrace the idea that failure is an important teacher, not an endpoint.

Today I mentor other women and my one advice to them is it’s always better to fail fast and learn from that failure, cut your losses if necessary than to deny yourself the acceptance of being a mere mortal who can’t do it all. It’s much healthier to accept that not every one of our ventures will be successful. And that’s really fine as long as we learn from it, even if that lesson is “this is not for me”, and move on to find other opportunities, and we continue to grow.

So when you’re looking at your next risk, remember it’s crucial to base your decisions on what you’ve learned from your past and not on an emotional response to fear for what may happen in the future.

Embrace the idea that failure is an important teacher, not an endpoint. That’s what is most important.