Forward thinking: Is failure good for you?

J. K. Rowling, after receiving an honorary degree from The University of Aberdeen. (Courtesy Wikipedia)

Her name is J.K. Rowling . . .

She is the author of the wildly successful Harry Potter series. What you may not know is that she was a divorced, single mom and all but homeless before she discovered writing fiction was her passion.

At one point Ms. Rowling is quoted as saying that failing in other jobs opened the way for her to finally work at what she was really passionate about. She said, “Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might have never found the determination to succeed in the one area I believe I truly belonged — fiction writing.”

Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team the first time he tried out. In retrospect, we now know the rest of the story. Winston Churchill flunked the sixth grade. Abraham Lincoln ran for office 22 times before he was elected to Congress.

Was failure good for these leaders?

Over the years, I have come to the conclusion that a person’s IQ is less the key to success than the mindset one brings to problems or any challenge. A second conclusion that I have drawn over time is there are two basic mindsets about how people deal with failure.

Those mindsets are “fixed” and “learning.”

The person with a “fixed” mindset believes they have a finite ability. They tend to focus on learning a particular skill or task and strive to do it very well. Their fear of trying new things is they will look stupid or incompetent.

Working hard and excelling in order to find the right success formula is important to those with a fixed mindset. Consequently, they often work under stress because they are striving for the right way to do things. They may excel and move through their failures, but odds are they will burn out or give up due to the stress.

The second category of people sees failure as a “learning” mindset. They believe success also takes hard work and effort; however, when failure happens they see the event as an opportunity to learn.

For individuals with a learning mindset, each failure is a new opportunity that helps them grow and develop. These folks see failure as a challenge which allows them to be more resilient and less stressed during times of failure. With less stress they are able to persevere and keep moving forward. Furthermore, innovation and creativity is more available when we are under less stress.

I have had my share of failures, as we all have. In 2015, I lost an election that was very important to me just to name one prominent failure in my life. It hurt back then and still does. Anyone who has run for office knows it hurts a lot to lose. What is even worse is having the morning newspaper report your failure on the front page. Most of us would rather keep our failures private.

During these uncertain times, many of us (including you and me) may have the opportunity to practice failure. The successful person will leverage these opportunities to continue to learn. Over time I have learned a few strategies to help deal with failure:

Check your own attitude. Do you fear failure?  If so, re-valuate your beliefs and assess your mindset about failure and how this mindset affects your leadership style.

Think about those times in your past when you failed. How did you handle the event? Did it allow an opening for something new or did you put even more stress on yourself and those around you?

Create a culture of ongoing learning with those you lead. Encourage others to see there is not a finite or fixed way of doing things and “we are continuously enlarging our understanding.”

Balance accountability with forgiveness. When others are doing their best and being conscientious, notice their hard work.  When mistakes are made, acknowledge their efforts, forgive and encourage them to keep trying while holding them accountable for their agreed-upon work product.

Encourage risk taking. Innovation and creativity is unlikely when people feel constant pressure to perform in a culture with a fixed mindset.

Only a few days ago, we launched a new year. We are only a few days into the first month of January. I am encouraging you to start today by doing two things.

First, acknowledge right now sooner or later you are going to fail at something during 2019.

Second, take an inventory of your mindset by observing how you handle failure. As a boss, peer, parent, spouse or friend, remember your attitudes toward failure will spill over into your relationships. Developing the “learning” mindset can liberate you from a life of stress so you can enjoy your successes AND failures.

Until next time . . .

— By Loren Simmonds

Loren Simmonds has been a resident of Lynnwood for 37 years. He served on the Lynnwood City Council for 16 years, including eight as Council President. He remains active in the community by serving on the Parks and Recreation Foundation Board, Civil Service Commission and the Snohomish County Planning Commission. He believes that volunteerism sows the seeds of community. Loren is semi-retired and works as a writer, speaker and leadership coach.









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