A Woman Who Cannot Fail, Cannot Succeed

One must learn how to fail first, before success becomes possible. Failure however is not an F-word we are comfortable with. There is something about failure that most people fear and cannot articulate, let alone process. I’m here to change this. 


I speak across the country about failure; Fail faster, succeed sooner is my philosophy. Strange topic, perhaps, however no one else does. Why? Failure isn’t something we discuss openly. I remember scaring the heck out of my bosses throughout my career with their response being: “You want to teach your people to intentionally fail? Are you nuts?” (My answer was always “Yes!”) Initially, I’m quite sure they thought I lost my mind, as they have never had failure used as a leadership technique before. It scared them. But it worked.


So why is failure so important? Failure is a process of learning. Period. As a 20-year university professor, I know about failure and the havoc it causes for students BECAUSE no one teaches them how to fail. Well—almost no one. 


Toddlers are our best teachers; however few pay attention to how they learn. Think about this. Brian Smith, founder of the Billionaire brand, UGG Boots, has a classic line, “You can’t give birth to adults.” Yes—Brian gets it. We don’t come out of the womb knowing how to walk or talk or do much of anything. We have to learn. We learn through failure.


A toddler who learns to walk is driven by the need for what walking will accomplish. The Toddler wants Mommy (or Daddy). The Toddler wants the cookie. Walking will get them there, faster; simply a means to an end. Toddlers figure out life pretty quickly, learning cause and effect. If they want x, they have to do y to get it. Pretty simple. 


Toddlers make a game of it. They often figure out how NOT to walk first. They crawl backwards, they get stuck, and they try again. They get up, they fall down. They giggle. They try it again. And again. And Again. AND AGAIN; however long it takes to achieve their goal: to get the cookie. They aren’t interested in walking for walking’s sake. Walking is a tool; simply a means to an end. AND Toddlers know how to have fun doing it. Having a bad day? Find a YouTube video of a giggling toddler. It’s darn near infectious! I’m sure you’re smiling simply reading this.


Toddlers get the whole learning thing and the whole failure thing too. The challenge is that we forget these lessons as adults. Toddlers simply focus on the process. They put one foot in front of the other, they fall down, they giggle. Rinse. Repeat. No big deal. The game? Last Man Standing. To get up one more time than you fell down. Once they start walking, failure is over. Learning these skills is over, on to the next challenge. No hang up; no fear. Just full steam ahead.


I seriously doubt that the Toddler counted the number of failures, the mistakes, the oops, or the near misses. The only score that counts is walking TO GET THE COOKIE! 


Herein lies the challenge for understanding failure as adults. Failure stopped being fun somewhere along the line. Failure stopped being easy. Failure simply stopped us. Sometimes forever. Why?


The answer is in how we learn. The fancy academic words are pedagogy—how children learn; and andragogy-how adults learn. The easy answer? We don’t take the time to process failure. We stopped seeing failure as a leadership strategy as a means to an end. When we didn’t get the cookie, we felt the pain. We felt the pain of embarrassment, of humiliation; perhaps we were made fun of and failure quickly took on a negative personality. Failure didn’t feel good. 


Think of Edison. Edison—the inventor of the lightbulb– had 997 attempts at creating the lightbulb. All failures. 998 worked. Ta da! 


Edison is one of those folks I would like to take to lunch and ask him about the process. Perhaps it went something like this. 


#1—nope that didn’t work. 


#55 -nope that didn’t work. 


#312—nope that didn’t work.


Rinse. Repeat.


Edison was methodical. He had a system. He was a Toddler all over again; simply seeing that failure was a gift that EVENTUALLY led to success. Perhaps for him, failure simply meant a mark in his journal, a note of what not to do next time. Maybe an exasperation. Maybe a long walk. Maybe a short break. Then back at it. Again. And again. AND AGAIN. UNTIL—voila!—the light bulb turned on for the first time. 


Can you imagine the elation? The joy? The triumph? Perhaps a giggle or a hearty belly laugh? I can’t imagine Edison having the angst that most of us do about the F-word. I would like to think that failure was simply no big deal, a laugh, a giggle, a get up one more time and try again and then Whoop—there it is


Now why should you care? Good question. The only question that really matters here is what will YOU do about failure? Do you stop at 1, maybe 4? Maybe 14? 400? How many of us have the grit, the perseverance, and the intestinal fortitude to keep going—no matter what—giggling all the way to 998?

The question is what will you do about failure? Your answer is the only one that matters.


See you around the quad! Happy thinking!


Dr. Cheryl Lentz
The Academic Entrepreneur


You can catch my She Talk at Zappos in May 2019 in Las Vegas on You Tube here