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  • Anna Weltner

The subtle art of failing well

This month we're exploring what we can learn from failure, what we gain from being less scared of it, and how best to plan for this inevitable part of being human.

A dart board with many darts that have missed the mark,
Photo credit: Unsplash

Can you get “good” at failure?

Mistakes, setbacks, and misunderstandings are an unavoidable part of living. Yet most of us probably don’t spend a lot of energy on learning to fail more gracefully. We’re often more concerned with concealing our failures, or avoiding them altogether!

And yet responding to failure is a crucial life skill. The right combination of self-compassion, openness, honesty, and perseverance in the face of failure can be the difference between a defeat and a mere setback, or between a setback and a learning opportunity. So while failures are generally out of our control (Right? Anyone out there failing on purpose? We'd love to hear your story!), the way we respond, take responsibility, and apply the lessons from our failures are all within our grasp.

So yeah, it’s totally possible to get better at failing!

Your tools for failing well 🧰

This month, we're focusing on the theme of Failing Well. The title is inspired by Amy Edmondson's new book Right Kind of Wrong: The Science of Failing Well, which we'll be discussing at the MeaningSphere Book Club on April 25. (Advance reading is not required! Reserve your spot here.)

Can't make Book Club? here are some other timely offerings we've put together to help you to explore/upgrade/transform your relationship with failure:

Download our April 2024 Meaningful Work Calendar! Each weekday contains a reflection question, activity, or other bite-sized prompt on this month’s theme, Failing Well. Get it at our Resources page.

Attend a Meaning Circle®! Meaning Circles are guided, small-group sessions where we unpack big topics related to finding meaning at work. The following Circles explore recovering from, and learning from, setbacks:

🏆 Embracing Failure—A Meaning Circle Wednesday, April 24

A piece of pottery being repaired with gold.
Image credit: Shutterstock

Lastly, we've asked a few of our MeaningSphere Guides what books, articles, videos, or other media they personally recommend on the subject of Failing Well, and they delivered! The following are some of their go-to resources on failing well, failing smarter, and failing forward.

Recommended reading (and viewing) from your MeaningSphere Guides 🔍

Failing Forward  by John C. Maxwell

Instead of failing well, move on to failing forward: a step forward in your own development. You then choose to learn from and respect your failures, which are taking you forward to a greater you! In this way you are dealing with failures in a positive way. Which is not always easy and worth trying."

—Marjan Heitman, The Hague, Netherlands

"Smart failure for a fast-changing world," a TED talk by Eddie Obeng

Obeng emphasizes the fact that we are now living in a world where the pace of change overtakes the pace of learning, increasing considerably the possibilities of falling. At the same time he advocates the failed projects as an opportunity for innovation.

I believe that we created a society where succeeding became an obligation, forgetting that we never have total control on life. It is about time we learn how to deconstruct the myth of endless progress and productivity."

—Luiz Veloso, The Hague, The Netherlands

A broken egg oozes onto a blue surface.
Image credit: Pexels

Last week, reading the latest book of Ellen Langer, I came across the quote below. She hands us an alternative to see failure in a different light. I think her reasoning can help us to make it easier to find meaning in our actions and outcomes. Some might question and say this feels like false positivity. Yet, to me, it is a healthier frame, allowing us some slack to move forward in a meaningful way:

'The word challenge for many conjures up suffering and the real possibility of failure. But we need to turn it around and ask ourselves what success feels like the moment after we catch our breath. We’re left to ask ourselves, “Now what?” I’m fond of using the challenging game of golf as an example. If we were finally getting a hole-in-one every time we swung the golf club, the game would no longer be any fun. We can either do a task imperfectly mindfully or perfectly mindlessly. When we behave mindlessly, the experience is empty. Failure then needs to be understood as incomplete success; unless you give up, there is no such thing as failure.'"

—Lilian Kolker, Utrecht, Netherlands

A close-up of a third place medal.
Image credit: Shutterstock

"Amy Edmondson has been doing great work at Harvard around psychological safety and ensuring that “failure” results in personal and organizational learning. She is one of my favorite contributors on the subject of pursuing individual and organizational high performance.

The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth is an excellent primer and provides a road map that individuals, teams, and organizations can use to learn, improve, and perform at a high level.

I also recommend Edmondson's Right Kind of Wrong: The Science of Failing Well. I particularly like the following excerpt:

'What can we take away from the practices of elite athletes? It seems to me that they learn how to confront their mistakes by focusing instead on possibility—on the achievements palpably within reach even if they eluded you today. They show us how to care more about tomorrow’s goal than today’s ego gratification.'”

—Bob Ferlauto, Neshanic Station, New Jersey, United States

Editor's note: This is your sign to register for our April 25 MeaningSphere Book Club session on Right Kind of Wrong if you haven't already!


Who are the MeaningSphere Guides? 🧐

Simply put, Guides at MeaningSphere are people from different walks of life who've had success in navigating the world of work. They are trained to use the results of an assessment tool called the Meaningful Work Survey™ to help you unpack what matters to you at work. Once you’ve taken the Survey and received your personal report, you can book a 1:1 virtual session with a Guide to discuss your results and create an action plan to build more meaning into your work.

🚨 Free stuff alert: Since the techy side of our Guides offering is in beta, you can book this service for free with the purchase of the Meaningful Work Survey! That’s an hour-long, personalized session included in your $20 purchase of the Survey. Tell your friends!

*Please note that, right now, we’re only able to offer the Meaningful Work Survey in the US. We hope to change that soon!


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