Failure Avoidance Vs. Error Recovery

I often hear from employers and managers that finding critical-thinkers, problem-solvers, or self-starters is hard to do in this day and age. And yet, it’s interesting that the very traits that makes them so are generally frowned upon in business and in society in general—taking risks; exploring new possibilities; learning and adjusting from the inevitable mistakes.

Many of the world’s greatest successes have failed their way to that success. Most of the life-altering, culture-defining, and seemingly essential discoveries (space travel), devices (computers/cell phones), medicines (antibiotics), and systems (interstate highways) we use today were created after numerous failures, mistakes, and errors.

Thomas Edison made 1,000 unsuccessful attempts at inventing the light bulb. One day, an assistant asked him why he didn’t give up.  After all, he failed over a thousand times. Edison replied that he had not failed once, but he had discovered over 1000 things that didn’t work.

Michael Jordan said in a recent interview, “I have missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I have lost almost 300 games. On 26 occasions I have been entrusted to take the game winning shot, and I missed. I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

If we are to grow and advance in life and work, on occasion we will need to move into uncharted territory such as tasks not yet mastered, problems with no apparent solution, or situations requiring a creative, yet-to-be-imagined idea. The speed at which we embrace them, roll up our sleeves, experiment,  and discover what’s plausible and possible is often what determines who gets rewarded, recognized, promoted, or becomes personally successful in life.

When we attempt to do something we’ve never done before, we risk making a mistake or worse yet, outright failure. In our current culture, mistakes in education, business, and life are stigmatized as sloppy and stressful and something to avoid at all costs. And sometimes, they are. Mistakes made in areas we have (or should have) mastered are costly and sloppy. But, when attempting to master a new skill or creatively solve a problem, mistakes are usually inevitable and are essential to the process.

I recently watched a presentation given by Randy Nelson, the former dean of Pixar University, on learning and working in a collaborative age. He stated that at Pixar the single most important requirement for new hires was the ability to program a computer, even if this would not actually be listed anywhere on their job description. For a cutting-edge company like Pixar, where creativity and innovation define everyday activities, the ability to program a computer indicates the applicant has a rigorous problem-solving domain at their disposal—one of the most essential skills Pixar requires.

This idea was formed out of a decades-old initiative begun by NASA in the 1960’s during the time of Sputnik when everyone (including me!) dreamed of becoming an astronaut, or at least some part of the new and exciting space program. During that time, NASA had thousands of brilliant college graduates apply for a single position so attempting to select the best candidate based on IQ scores or college transcripts was nearly impossible. Instead, they utilized what was essentially a “reverse criteria” they termed, Error Recovery vs. Failure Avoidance. Rather than choosing only the most successful, they would award the position to the candidate who could prove they had not only succeeded but had also failed successfully—solving and resolving problems, finding ways to survive and apply the information in order to advance and thrive. They knew that person would possess a special set of adaptive skills absolutely required and necessary for the space program.

This week, as an employee or sole-entrepreneur, consider how your current beliefs surrounding the impact and usefulness of making and learning from mistakes is determining the challenges you strive to solve, the advanced skills you attempt to master, or the new ideas and concepts you might bring to the world.

As a business owner or manager, consider the culture you’ve established with regard to the value of taking risks, trying new skills, and learning from mistakes. Environments where mistakes are expected and viewed as an essential piece of growth are where true problem-solvers thrive. If you want critical thinkers on your team and the results they bring, be sure you are seeking “error recovery vs. failure avoidance” skills in new and existing employees and encouraging them to learn and grow from the valuable lessons and adjusted solutions which will surely flourish.

Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.

~ Henry Ford