TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. - Merriam-Webster defines the word ‘failure’ as “a lack of success or a falling short.” This is certainly negative in connotation, but I bet at one time or another, each of us has tried something and failed.
Bill Gates’ first company was known as Traf-O-Data. You have likely never heard of it because it failed. Vincent Van Gogh sold only one painting while alive, just three months prior to his death. Yet, in 2015, two of his paintings sold for a combined price of $116 million. Dr. Seuss’ first book was rejected by 27 different publishers, but later went on to sell 222 million copies. Michael Jordan was cut by his high school sophomore basketball coach, but later went on to garner five Most Valuable Player awards and six NBA titles. Jamie Vanoss tried for three years to complete a 360-degree kickflip off a ledge. He finally succeeded and went on to become a chief master sergeant. While mastering a skateboard trick did not make me a chief, learning how to overcome failure certainly helped me become one.
So how do we move forward?
It starts with the realization that at one point or another, we will all fail. For some, this failure is overcome with a small tweak. For others, this failure requires immense courage and determination to get back up and try again. Regardless of severity, leaders should encourage outside-the-box thinking while recognizing that in some cases, it might lead to failure. It is this type of thinking that inspires innovation and negates stagnation.
Imagine for a moment if Brig. Gen. William ‘Billy’ Mitchell gave up after his first attempt at proving the worth of an Air Force. Or if Sgt. Ulysses ‘Sam’ Nero, fearing failure, did not attempt to validate aerial bombing as a technique to sink battleships. If leaders did not invite their possible failures, the Air Force might be a very different place.
So why are we so scared of failure?
For many, it amounts to pride. After all, no one wants to be judged a “failure.” Imagine though if those who failed simply packed it up and went home. The world, and the Air Force, would likely be a very different place. Instead, those who ignored the possible stigma of failure decided to look adversity in the eye and overcome it.
You see, failure is just a way of making you try something a different way. So go ahead and try, but never accept a failure as the end. Instead, adjust course appropriately and try again. Only then will you truly understand and appreciate that the essence of failing is really just about learning.
Leaders, recognize that failure is a necessary step in the learning process. Encourage those you lead to try new things, take new risks and recognize, in doing so, they might fail. You might just inspire the next Mitchell or Nero. And oh, by the way, you might just make what others deemed impossible, possible.