When is failure a good thing?

It is usually written on a poster of inspiring scenery or something depicting triumph in the face of strong odds. It can take the form of a mountain climber at the summit or a tired and ragged athlete shedding tears of joy over a championship trophy. It is most often found in a cheap black frame hanging in the office of a cubicle farm. The message is simple: failure is the building block to success.

Why do we spend so much time reminding ourselves of the virtues of failure? Why does that message make it into the texts of countless books on business, personal motivation, and entrepreneurism? The answer is rather simple. Failure sucks, and most of us are naturally and deathly afraid of it.

The stigmatism and negative connotation of failure are part of our biological programming. At an early age, we develop a sense that failure leads to negative consequences. When navigating the physical world, failure to negotiate our surroundings can lead to injury. Failing to follow a traffic rule can result in a crash. Failing to pass a test will result in a bad grade. Failing to finish our work might lead to losing a job. All of this makes sense. We are hard wired and programmed through life to avoid failure as a mechanism of self-preservation.

However, we also know that many stories of success include at least one if not a series of failures. From Abraham Lincoln to the greatest athletes and business tycoons of the modern era, failure is prevalent in their road to achievement. This foundation of failure exists when success requires taking risks, which is the precursor to most failure. Thus, we surround ourselves with inspirational messages that failure does have purpose, and at times it should be embraced despite our natural inclination to avoid it.

This leads to the best question of all. One that I have often posed to colleagues who throw inspirational failure quotes in their email signature line. (I can’t help myself. An antagonist who lives for a good socratic debate is lurking inside me). I ask the following questions: If failure is both an enemy to self-preservation and the lifeblood to success, then when should we embrace it and when should we avoid it? How do we know when failing is actually leading to success? In short, when is failure a good thing?

I don’t care if you are the coach of your son’s little league team, the CEO of a multinational corporation, or somewhere in the vast world of in between, we all have something to learn about failure. We must identify the elements that make failure a building block to success rather than a road to nowhere. This will allow us to ditch the inspirational quote and truly have an understanding of failure and know how and when to embrace it or avoid it.

Thus far, through my work, life experiences, and natural tendency to question everything, I have discovered three key elements to “good” failure. Luckily, like any aspiring poster quote writer, I have summarized them into three “F” words. (Let’s be honest, most of life’s lessons are accompanied by a good “F” word).

In order for failure to be a good thing, it must be accompanied by flexible, fast, and fun. Leaving any of these elements out will result in more harm than good. A person, team, or organization must be flexible enough to change directions after a failure. That change must come quickly in order to avoid wasting time and other resources. Thus, one must identify failure fast. Finally, good failure must be associated with fun. This might be the hardest one. It takes a fundamental shift in perception to overcome the natural stigmatism of failure. This means creating an organizational culture that embraces our missteps and those of our colleagues in a way in which everyone is willing to not only accept failure but also celebrate it as soon as it happens.

I will spend the next several posts discussing each of these elements in more detail. For now, all you have to do is learn a few new “F” words and failure will be your favorite one. Well, maybe it will be your second favorite.

David Seitz, Cofounder of Think Space, where new ideas are born