(This article is based on a talk I gave today at Nonprofit Boot Camp in San Francisco.)
Haunted By Failure
A few years ago I led a program at Craigslist Foundation called LikeMinded. It was part of a high profile suite of projects funded by a major foundation. Like 9 out of 10 web initiatives, it didn’t catch on.
It’s almost three years later, and this is the first time I’ve written about it publicly. There’s a taboo around talking about failure, and I’m ready to defy that taboo.
LikeMinded failed for all sorts of reasons, including the most important one: the world decided it wasn’t essential.
What I’ve been learning recently is that what is essential is a real relationship with failure.
We all fail, and failure hurts. I invested years of my life leading this initiative for Craigslist Foundation and traveled more than 100,000 miles learning from community members and partners. When it didn’t take hold, it was disappointing. And when Craigslist Foundation didn’t last long enough for us to learn from round one and try again, it was doubly frustrating.
We don’t have to share our failures publicly, but sharing them has an important role. It helps us move forward. It helps us get the disappointment out in the open so we can process the emotions and grow from the experience.
I grew from my LikeMinded experience. Leading the initiative expanded my skills, and I discovered that they were exactly the type of skills that help me in my current role as a peak performance expert and leadership coach.
The Real Stakes of Failure
This summer I went to a talk about failure. For our name tags, everyone was asked to answer the question: “How do you handle a moment of failure?”
Almost every answer was a variation on: “move on,” “fail more,” or “fail bigger.”
These answers come from a concept called Failing Forward. Originally, this was a great concept. It connected people to the idea that we don’t need to be stopped by failure, and in fact failure might be the pathway to bigger victories.
But somewhere along the line, Failing Forward got corrupted to the point where failure became the badge of honor instead of moving forward. Rather than being a tool, failure has almost become the end. That’s not cool.