He owned his own business, but it seemed every time he tried something new, it failed. Though Tom was faced with insurmountable odds at times, he persevered, stayed at his task and was unbelievably successful in his own right.

He was one person, who just so happened to be Thomas Edison, but he did have a pretty good perspective on failure. Edison is credited with saying “I have not failed. I have just found one of 10,000 ways that won’t work”.

From Edison’s viewpoint, whatever the reason or cause, failure really does come down to a matter of perspective. Failure has always been a part of our lives, whether we look at it that way or not. Clearly, there are many levels of failure, from catastrophic life and death situations, to minor inconveniences, and a whole lot of other layers between the two extremes. Without a doubt, everyone has failed many times in their lives.

John Maxwell, the noted author, says “In life, the question is not if you will have problems, but how you are going to deal with your problems. If the possibility of failure were erased, what would you attempt to achieve?” We must realize and accept that all of us, that is 100% of us, are going to make mistakes. Maxwell sums it up this way, “failure is simply a price we pay to achieve success….”

For example, setting unrealistic goals is asking for failure. Realistic goals are more easily achieved. They result in building your confidence with each success or lessening the distance you fall in the case of failure. If you cannot be self motivated, as Maxwell puts it, you will end up “taking your orders from one who is”. He believes in failing forward. “If you’re not failing, you’re probably not really moving forward”.

Dr. John Kotter, the retired Professor of Leadership at the Harvard Business School and current Head of Research at Kotter International has made the following observation: “Even if something fails at first, you must learn, adjust, and adapt. If that doesn’t work, then abandon. Failure is to be expected and at times rewarded.” In other words, develop your own acceptable level of tolerance to risk and the associated potential for failure. Kotter and Ken Perlman, an Engagement Leader with Kotter go on to point out several other areas where failure is an option. They are areas where we need to strive for continuing to learn from our mistakes.

-We need to learn from management examples. There is a saying “As the leaders go, so go the people”. The management of your company must reflect the appropriate response when they fail. They need to lead by example and work to instill a failure recovery culture.

-Be pro-active, not reactive. Do not dwell on failures. Strive to develop a prototype response. Company based programs can help improve employee morale, productivity and provide a stronger link to the mission of your company. Special projects can expose your staff to other core areas of your business which can serve to promote greater cooperation across those functional areas.  

Robert Frost covered things pretty well when he said “Two roads diverged in a wood and I, I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” To follow the road metaphor, is failure like making a wrong turn? Not necessarily, according to Kotter and Perlman. Once we take the path that results in failure, we need to do whatever we can to get back on the right road. In this case, the road to success, not the road to failure.

That road to success is riddled with the failures of many business people. For most people, every forward step is progress. Each step backward is just that, a step back. You will decide if it represents failure. Don’t let others make that decision for you. Don’t let them apply their definition of failure to your attempts for success.

Each step, whether successful or not, represents one thing that is almost always positive, you have gained in experience. You may have learned how to do something right or how to have done something wrong, but you have learned something! The education gained from that experience will, no doubt, help you in navigating along the road that leads to success. Hopefully, the business lessons of failures and the resultant success that emanated from them will give your business a great growth trajectory.

Dan Arens is an Indiana-based business growth advisor.

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