Why we need to learn to “fail better”
"A positive attitude to failure predicts resilience, drive and, ultimately, success," according to Matthew Syed, in another of his brilliant columns in The Times. Mathew was writing about the rise of tennis player Stan Wawrinka from an "also-ran" outside the top 10 to number four in the world. He suggests a clue to this turnaround is in the tattoo on Wawrinka's left forearm (from Samuel Beckett’s novella, Worstward Ho) around the time his performance improved:
“Ever tried. Ever failed. No Matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
At first sight, the quote seems strange. "Why celebrate failure? Isn’t tennis (and life) about success?" asks Mathew. When Wawrinka was struggling for form, one commentator went as far as suggesting that the tattoo was an indicator of a defeatist mindset, reflected in his failure to win a big title. However, Mathew believes this analysis was "entirely wrong" and suggests that "the tattoo coincided with a metamorphosis in the career of the Swiss (player)." Here's how Wawrinka explained his improvement in form to Mathew:
“I came to a deep realisation. Losing is a part of life. Nobody wins all the time. The question, then, is how do you react to defeat? Do you become demotivated and defensive? Or do you learn from it? Defeat is a huge opportunity to figure out how to become better. It is an opportunity to analyse. You can find new things to practise and better ways to adapt.”
Mathew points to another famous athlete who shares the same viewpoint, Michael Jordan, as brought to life in the memorable quote below.
So, how to go about practically applying the learning from Mathew's article?
1. Don't "airbrush" your failures, confront them
The easy thing when faced with failure is to ignore it, to "bury your head in the sand". A more constructive approach is to "confront our failures, honestly and rationally", as Mathew says. Once you've had time to "wallow" a little and feel sorry for yourself, step back and analyse what went wrong, as if you were looking at the situation like an outsider.
2. Reduce your weaknesses
What are the issues in your performance that you an address? One of the most painful failures in my career came when running a brand management training program for Unilever back in the early 90's. I confronted a couple of participants who kept on chatting and disturbing the group, asking them to sit in separate places. Uh oh. They literally told me to piss off and I lost command of the workshop. I was depressed for a day afterwards but then went into action mode, getting my own training on how to effectively handle this sort of issue in a workshop. It was one of the most powerful learning experiences I've ever had.
Importantly, working on your weak points doesn't mean you have to turn them into strengths. Rather, you need to find a way to get them to a minimum level so you "neutralise" them.
3. Amplify your strengths
Real progress, I suggest, comes from learning how to create and amplify your own distinctive strengths. In the case of Wawrinka, a key strength is his "powerful (and aesthetically compelling) single-handed backhand." In my own case, I've worked on refining the tools and techniques that help teams "follow the money", focusing their effort and investment of fewer, bigger ideas.
4. Get some perspective
Another powerful point in Mathew's piece is the need to get a bit of perspective in life, by working with people less fortunate than yourself. This puts into perspective your failure to, say, win a contract or get a promotion, so you can analyse it more objectively. In Wawrinka's case, this came from working as a teenager on the family farm alongside fellow workers who suffered from mental illnesses. In my own case I've recently become a trustee of St Christopher's, a charity providing fostering and childrens' homes. Meeting a young person who can only see their parents on Xmas day under supervision, owing to the abuse suffered before, is the sort of eye opener that is helping me re-frame failure in my life.
In conclusion, as Wawrinka says in his interview with Mathew, "Losing is inevitable, even for the best players. It is how you learn from it that matters most.”