When was the last time you failed? I don’t mean a little mistake. When was the last time you experienced a bona-fide, gut-wrenching, FUBAR failure? I used to be afraid to fail. I think I spent much of my twenties and my early thirties trying hard not to fail. Back then, I had serious perfectionist tendencies and worked hard not to make a mistake. I look back at how naive I was then. As much success as I’ve encountered in my career since those early days, I sometimes wonder how much further I’d be if I’d allowed myself to embrace and learn from my failures earlier in life. I started thinking about failure when the latest edition of the Harvard Business Review arrived in my mailbox. The entire issue is dedicated to the topic of failure -recognizing it, learning from it and recovering from it.
My own turning point with failure finally came when I was working as an expatriate in Shanghai, China as a PR agency executive nearly 10 years ago. Fresh off a successful career in New York, I took on the daunting task of managing several high-profile multi-national clients expanding their presence in China. My very first assignment was managing a well-known CEO of a European bank’s visit to a prominent Chinese business school. As a expert event planner, I had done my due diligence and thought I had covered off any potential issues that would mar this event. The CEO was scheduled to lecture to the business students (most of whom would be future prominent Chinese business and political leaders) on pension reform. Less than a day before the CEO was scheduled to arrive the business school staff intimated that the president of the school might not be able to personally greet the CEO when he arrived on campus – a huge break in protocol. I also discovered that a competing lecture had been scheduled at the same time as the CEO’s talk, which would greatly diminish attendance for his lecture. In less than 24 hours things began to quickly spiral downward. While we were able to get the competing lecture cancelled, the business school’s PR team informed me that the president would indeed be attending a fundraising dinner in Europe and therefore would not be able to personally greet the CEO. He would send a lower-ranking surrogate instead. Disaster. While the CEO’s lecture went well, the overall visit was a bust. The CEO was so offended he was not personally greeted by the school president, he withheld a six-figure donation he had intended to make to the school.
To say I was sick to my stomach is an understatement. For a while I even contemplated packing my bags and returning to the States, so upset was I over this failed event. While one could have argued that many of the events that transpired were out of my control, in hindsight there were some warning signs that I clearly ignored. Thankfully, I didn’t lose my job over that event and the experience actually made me a better professional. I’m glad I experienced that monumental failure because it helped to season and mature me in a way that success couldn’t. Over the years, I’ve developed my own short list of rules for dealing with failure:
These small steps have helped me to manage failure in a much more mature and healthy way. While I’m still a work in progress, it’s made a difference for me thus far. How have you managed failure in your life? What advice do you have for others who wrestle with the fear of failure?