Hi Leader,

"What was a painful failure that you converted into victory? What have you learned by failing?"

I recently was asked these two questions. After reflection, I identified six categories of failure. When most people think about failure, they only consider the first category. Given that my core philosophy is that I am a work in progress, I have found that reflecting on the other five kinds of failure has rich learning and development value.

The Six Failures

Listen here: Episode 62: The Six Failures

To identify your growth opportunities, I propose that you reflect on six kinds of failure we each experience in life.

  1. The failure to achieve a goal, reach a target and/or win an aspiration.
    When I was 14, I considered myself the favorite to win the Israeli cross-country running championship for my age group. To achieve that goal, there were three major 4K races I needed to win. After winning the first race, my game plan for the second was clear: if I could lead by 20 meters as we came through the uphill before re-entering the stadium, my competitors would find it impossible to close the gap. On the day of the race, I executed my plan and gained the lead. Then, on the moderate uphill, some 150 meters before entering the stadium, I stumbled as my right foot got caught on the plastic ribbon that marked the path. The four seconds it cost me felt like eternity, and I lost my cadence. My competitor closed the gap as we entered the stadium, then edged ahead of me in the last 200 meters. I was stunned, shocked, upset, and embarrassed. How could I have lost the race by making such an amateurish mistake? I vowed never to lose focus and make the same mistake again.
  2. The failure to apply learning.
    As is the case with elite athletes who fail to win their events and re-play their mistakes in their heads, so did I relived those few seconds that cost me the race time and again as I prepared for the third race in this championship series, the Tabor race near Mount Tabor. I knew I could not afford to lose my concentration again. My plan was simple: to win the race by the middle rather than at the end. I executed the game plan by creating a meaningful lead on the steep uphill. Having exerted all my strength in that effort, however, I was spent as I came into the flat area. My mind told my body that I could find the fuel for a strong finish on the downhill if I just relaxed for a few seconds and allowed the lactic acid to clear. With chaotic noise all around, I entered the last kilometer. Suddenly, two spectators jumped out of the crowd right in front of me, pretending to have been running the race all along. "They probably will be disqualified," was my immediate thought, but I could not leave that decision to chance or to debate. What happened next is difficult to explain. I felt I was coming out of my body, as though I was floating in the air, racing faster than I ever had dared to run a steep downhill gravel road. I easily could have fallen and crashed. Although I was the first to cross the finish line, I immediately collapsed and fainted. It took me a minute or two to regain a clear head and full consciousness. This time, I did not fail to reach my goal. Instead I won the race by applying the lesson learned from my previous failure.
    The first category of failure is an inescapable part of living. We simply cannot win in all situations, whether it is winning a race, a deal, a promotion or any other goal. Even Michael Phelps had to discover that he was just as human as the rest of us. After his great and yet imperfect London Olympics, he applied the learning gained and went to the Rio Olympics well prepared to achieve all his goals.
    In preparation for my third race, I examined what I must change. I used my disappointment to refocus and apply my learning to execute my plan successfully.
    These first two categories of failure were apparent immediately. The remaining four, which too often are ignored, are equally important to reflect on and learn from.
  3. The failure to be present.  
    Looking back at my 30s and 40s, I realized that there were times in which I was not fully present for important people in my life. A part of me was preoccupied with how to navigate a challenging situation I encountered. At the time, this preoccupation seemed a natural and reasonable response. Later, I realized the most critical conversation is the one I am engaged in at any given moment. As a result of this insight, I have become much better, even if imperfect, at being present here and now.
  4. The failure to recognize and respond to opportunities.
    There are two buckets in this category. The first is failing to recognize a
     window of opportunity when it opens. The second is letting fear paralyze you and hold you back from responding to an opportunity. As I learned very early in life, the opportunity window is a dynamic one. I have worked hard to be present to recognize and respond to opportunities that present themselves to me. Since my mid-30s, I have operated under the premise that creating opportunities for oneself is central to self-leadership.
  5. The failure to hold on to your own values, morals and sense of integrity.
    I have found that
    living in integrity and remaining true to my values are central to my health and well-being. This choice goes beyond doing the nice, the right, or the fair thing. Rather, it is a matter of mental and spiritual wellness. This belief does not require me to be a saint. It is about staying intact and true to my own self-expectations by recognizing and appreciating that even small integrity compromises dilute my resolve and determination, thereby weakening me and leaving me more susceptible to bigger compromises.

    This insight led me to discover the power of rituals and of the small acts that fortify my sense of what I am about. By choosing to do what's right when no one is watching and there is no immediate gain, I fortify my spirit, build a sense of self-authorship, and claim a higher moral ground for me, free of the opinions of others.
  6. The failure to forgive.  
    Forgiving others and forgiving oneself are the two sides of forgiveness. Having worked with people in a variety of situations for four decades, I have found that self-forgiveness is the more difficult task. Yes, I have been hard on myself too many times. Forgiving others is easier than forgiving myself. I often remind myself that people mostly do the best they can. If they knew how to do better, they would do so. Then I ask myself, "What do you love more, the pain of yesterday or the possibility of today?" When I think clearly, the possibility of today comes out ahead every time. That's how I've learned to forgive myself for not being more agile, more articulate, more graceful in the moment.  

Now it is your turn. Turn the key. What failures have you converted into victory? What have you learned by failing? What opportunities and growth areas are available for you? As a result of your reflection, what will you stop doing? What will you start doing? How will you transform failure into learning and growth?

© Aviv Shahar