Why we need to embrace failure

The bulletin board across from my desk overflows with tidbits of wisdom torn not so carefully from newspapers and magazines. There are lists of the most commonly misspelled words, advice on making international students welcome in the community and marketing slogans I wish that I had come up with.

 The centrepiece to the mess is a yellowing 2003 broadsheet page from the National Post. It’s an obituary about the death of Izzy Asper, the owner of the paper, who had died suddenly. If there is ever a story you want to make sure you get right, it is about the death of your boss.

It is a good looking spread with the obligatory smiling photograph and large pull quotes from influential leaders saying the expected nice things. It is the headline that is most interesting. It says:  Insert Headline here.

In the rush to get the details right, the team of highly paid professionals poring over the page missed a fundamental part of the story: the headline.


I keep it pinned to my bulletin board to reminder me that
failure isn’t fatal.

I’m certain there were some red faces in the newsroom and some butt kicking that went on behind closed doors, but I am equally sure the people involved will never forget the embarrassing error, and to this day triple check their work.

 The newspaper may in fact be better today as a result of the mistake.

The Nova Scotia economy today might be in better shape if there was a little more failure- or rather - if people were more accepting of failure.

Nobody likes to fail. It feels terrible. It’s embarrassing and undoubtedly somewhere along the way you’ve let people down who had faith in you.

But there is opportunity for growth in failure. It builds character and persistence. If you learn from your mistakes, you grow and know what not to do the next time.

 The fear of failure stops people from taking risks. They do business the “safe” way.  It cuts them off from new opportunities. Henry Ford went broke four times before he made his fortune in the automobile industry. It took Thomas Edison 1,000 tries before he developed a working prototype for the light bulb.

“I didn’t fail 1,000 times, “ he is reported to have told a journalist. “The light bulb was an invention of 1,000 steps.”

Stephen Hartlen, executive director of the Industry Liaison and Innovation Office at Dalhousie University, believes Nova Scotians need to be more accepting of failure. Rather than cross the street to avoid eye contact with business leaders who have tried and failed, we should embrace them for having the courage to stick their necks out, even if the initial results are disappointing.

"Our focus should be on failing well, on being good at failure. What I mean by this, is taking the risk and then learning from it if it doesn't work.”

Embracing failure is going to be a hard sell. As Ray Ivany of Acadia University pointed out in his recent economic report, we aren’t even that good at celebrating our success.

Business baron John Risley makes this point in his public talks when he says it’s easy to identify a Nova Scotia lobster in a pot of water.  Just as a lobster seems to have crawled free of the boiling water, it is the Nova Scotia lobster that pulls him back in. 

It always gets an uneasy laugh.

But I agree with Hartlen about failure.  In the best companies the executive teams do not shy away from failure. They look for employees who have a balance of success and failure in their resumes. They want people who have been prepared to give it all in the heat of battle and learn from their mistakes. Isn’t that what we need in Nova Scotia?

We need a culture change here in Nova Scotia. It won’t be easy, but like addiction, recognizing you have a problem means you are on the path to a solution.

In his autobiography Nelson Mandela writes: The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.

Who am I to argue with Mandela?

(PS: Do not confuse this as a plea to support every half-cocked  scheme launched on a wing and prayer and a few dollars of government tax dollars. Risks need to be calculated, plans crafted and intent has to be genuine.)



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    Steve Proctor writes about the interesting things he comes across as he goes about his days.


    May 2014
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