Want to Succeed? Learn to Fail
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The Fiscal Times
February 18, 2014

Americans don’t like to talk about failure. It undermines our dignity and our self esteem. With everyone scrambling to be successful, why should we spend time talking about failure?

Experts say we can’t get ahead without experiencing bumps along the way – and that the better we know how to navigate those bumps, the better off we’ll be. 

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Consider that some of the biggest brands in business are rife with failure:

The problem is that so many people fear failure at work and aim to avoid it because it feels lousy – then never take the risks necessary for professional success.

“The upper middle class obsesses about sterling education credentials,” says McArdle. “Children are practically encased in bubble wrap before ever stepping foot outside. And if something does go wrong, God forbid, we start looking for someone to sue.”

Taking chances and risking failure is often the only way. “We’re the descendants of failures who fled to these shores from their creditors, their failed farms, their disastrous love affairs. If things didn’t work out in New York, we picked up and moved to North Dakota,” says McArdle. “Along the way, we built the biggest, richest country in the world.”

All of this has practical applications for today’s American workers in a challenging economy:  

TFT:  Why are so many people afraid to admit failure?

Megan McArdle (MM):  We have powerful instincts urging us to wish it away. There’s a paradox here: Failure should feel bad, because if it doesn’t feel bad we won’t stop doing whatever wasn’t working. But once we’ve experienced failure, we can understand what it’s like for things to go wrong – and can learn from that.

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Years ago, when I had a heavy student debt load after getting out of [the University of Chicago] business school, I realized I had to tell people I couldn’t afford to eat dinner out with them – I couldn’t do what everyone else was doing. I didn’t have the money. I couldn’t pretend any longer. I had to practice saying, ‘I can’t do this,’ and once I did that a few times, it got easier.

Instead of hiding from failure or covering it up, it’s much better if we say outright, ‘I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t do it right – but I’ve learned, and next time, I’ll do better.’ That’s freeing.

TFT:  You say we should actually give ourselves ‘permission to suck.’ Isn’t that going a bit far?

MM:  People get terrified of finding out they’re not up to the task, that others around them are smarter, better, more talented. So they procrastinate or don’t try at all. I’m saying, View failure as a normal part of growth – not as a referendum on how worthwhile we are.

That applies to the job search. I hear from a lot of unemployed young people who say, ‘I can’t find a decent job – I’m living with my parents and I’m miserable.’ I say, ‘Get out and do something.’

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Sure, it’s important to be strategic, to have a plan. But your plan probably won’t survive contact with reality. Unless you’re a prodigy or in a highly specialized field where the path is laid out, new graduates don’t always know what they’re good at out of the gate or where their talents and skills can be applied.

I say: ‘Leave the house, volunteer, learn something new – be active and not passive.’ Each time you’re creating an opportunity for something to happen, which could change your path. If Plan A doesn’t work – maybe Plan H will. Those who consistently keep moving, who keep taking steps forward, are the ones who get ahead in life.

TFTMillennials need a ton of confidence to know that this is the right thing to do – there’s no roadmap here.

MM:  If you’re not taking calculated risks in your life, you aren’t creating new opportunities. If you’re not taking calculated risks in your current job, you aren’t creating value for your company, which could boost profits and help you earn a promotion. It’s dangerous to have a career in which you haven’t ever failed, because when the big failure comes – and it will – you need to know how to handle it.

It’s important to be able to say to an employer: ‘This is where I went wrong. This is what I learned, and I couldn’t have learned it otherwise.’ We are better workers for doing that.

TFT:  It takes guts.

MM:  Yes, but if you can pick yourself up and try again – that’s when you may get the big win. Entrepreneurs and others who succeed, whether on the first attempt or the eighth, are responsible for the dynamism of our economy.

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Managing Editor Maureen Mackey oversees scheduling and work flow and also writes and edits features and reports. She spent more than 20 years as a senior book and features editor at Reader’s Digest.