The Lessons of Failure

May 31, 2018 by FlexPro

Have you ever met one of those people for whom failure is not an option? Someone who is wildly successful with everything they touch seeming to turn to gold? Someone with the confidence that they can do no wrong? And don’t you just hate them?! Truth be told, even the most successful people we encounter did not achieve their status without a few failures along the way. They also did not achieve their success without learning from those mistakes.

Last weekend I had the honor of attending my nephew’s graduation. Rose’s son Cameron graduated from Villanova University and the commencement speaker was Robert Moran, former CEO/President of several large retailers including Sears, Toys R Us and PetSmart. In his speech Moran discussed the importance of failure in creating success. He encouraged the graduates to go out into the world willing to take chances and suggested that they be open to failing as just another way of learning. As an example, he used Elon Musk, who’s current worth is standing at around $15 billion dollars. Not too shabby for a guy who was once fired while on his honeymoon, had not one, but two companies nearly go bankrupt, and was removed as CEO of his own company! The point Moran was trying to make was that, regardless of the failures Musk encountered, he continued to find success by learning from the mistakes he made and by never giving up.

I don’t know if many people know this about me, but at one very brief point in my career I was a high school math teacher. I really thought that’s what I wanted to do. I mean, really thought it was what I wanted. I spent years going to night school, while working a full-time corporate job, and raising two young kids, and finally got my Master’s in Secondary Education from Arcadia University.  I don’t know what I expected, and I don’t know what I had built it up in my mind to be, but it wasn’t any of that, once I was actually teaching real classes in real schools with real students. So, I left teaching after about six months, and yes, I felt like a failure, and felt tons of guilt for all the wasted time and money that I had burdened my family with. Ahh, the exuberance of youth, I guess I thought I was going to change the world one student at a time. Instead, I packed up my scientific calculator and my protractor and went home.

It was a long time ago and I’m sure I felt sorry for myself for a little while. However, and more importantly, I learned more from that failed teaching experiment in those few months than I could have ever imagined. I learned that teaching (while an honorable and worthy profession) was not for me. I learned to switch gears and go a completely differently direction now armed with the knowledge of what I didn’t want to do. I learned that I was so set on teaching that I never opened my mind to anything else and that keeping an open mind to all options is critical in career development. Ironically, since I was voluntarily unemployed and left my corporate job and my teaching job, that was when I ventured into entrepreneurship, and I learned that someday I would really like to start my own company.  I sincerely believe that had I not had that “failure” in teaching I would not have found my success today.

As project managers we should always be planning for the failures and setbacks. These should be built into our project plans just like we build in all other facets. Instead of being disappointed, surprised or even frustrated when they happen, anticipate them and be prepared with contingency plans. When you’re caught off guard, reevaluate and regroup. These setbacks are an opportunity for growth and learning. They allow us to open our minds to other possibilities. It’s important to keep a positive attitude through the rough times, if nothing else, for the sake of the team. They will be looking to you for guidance and understanding. Things will go wrong. Budgets will be blown, clients will change their direction, people will quit, deadlines will be missed, we’ve all been there. Encourage team members to communicate their thoughts on why things might not have worked out so well, what was learned in the process and how to carry that knowledge forward. Embrace the adversity, it’s putting you on an even greater path and the success you and your team will achieve will be even sweeter!

Failure is not the end, it is the BEGINNING! So, welcome it and learn from it. Don’t fear it. Yes, it can sting. It can suck the wind out of your sails and it can wilt your confidence. But it does not define you. It is simply the path to something else. Did you know that Walt Disney was fired from his first animation job for not being creative enough, then founded a film studio that went bankrupt? Steve Jobs was once fired from Apple, the company he cofounded. Oprah Winfrey was let go from her Baltimore news reporting job for being too emotionally attached to her stories. These failures only served to fuel these icons toward a new path and huge success.

In project management and in life we cannot stand still, we cannot just tread water going nowhere because we are afraid to fail. No one would have ever learned to walk as a baby, ride a bike as a child, learn to drive a car as a teenager, become a brain surgeon, or an astronaut, a talk show host or an airplane pilot because they were afraid to fail. Failure is inevitable. However, in my humble opinion, the real failure is to have never tried at all.

I’d be interested in hearing your stories of failure and triumph and how you handled the adversity as it led you back to success. Drop me an email!

-Lynn Faughey, FlexPro COO

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