2 Questions to Ask After a “Failure”

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In a recent blog article, I made the observation that too many of the big decisions we make in life are predicated on the avoidance of failure rather than on the achievement of success. In other words, we make too many “safe” decisions because we’re afraid of what might happen if we fail. I encouraged my readers to aim higher—to shoot for greatness, innovation, and influence.

But what if you do fail?

Hey, it’s gonna happen. If you’re truly aiming high (and, frankly, even if you’re not), you’re probably going to come up short every now and then. Things aren’t going to go the way you wanted them to. In other words, you’re going to fail.

But what is “failure,” really?

If you take out all the judgment and self-criticism, it’s really nothing more than getting a different outcome than the one you expected. In fact, some well known “failures” include (and you’ve probably seen a list like this before):

  • Champagne
  • Brownies (the dessert, not the girls in the brown beanies)
  • Penicillin
  • The pacemaker (the lifesaving device, not Gerry Marsden’s old band)
  • Super glue
  • Chocolate chip cookies
  • Teflon

So the next time you get a different outcome than the one you expected—the next time you “fail”—I want you to ask yourself these two questions, in this order:

  1. What’s the opportunity?
  2. What’s the lesson?

The first question, What’s the opportunity?, is extremely powerful for two reasons: 1) it immediately switches the so-called “failure” to a positive context, which opens—rather than closes—the door to other possibilities; and, 2) it pre-supposes that there is an opportunity. To understand how important this is, contrast this question—What’s the opportunity?—with another possible question: Is there an opportunity here? You can probably see the difference already. You may have heard that our brain will answer, or at least attempt to answer, whatever question is put to it. So the key to getting better answers is to ask better questions. If you ask, Is there an opportunity here?, your brain can very quickly come up with the answer: No. Not very powerful. But when you ask, What is the opportunity?, your brain will start coming up with possible opportunities. And who knows—some of them may even turn out to be better opportunities than your original idea!

The second question I want you to ask is, What’s the lesson? Look, it’s possible that the first question may not yield anything. You may not come up with any opportunities. (But I still want you to ask that question first, so that your brain at least has the chance to come up with something before simply tossing in the towel.) But whether you do or you don’t, this second question is still an important one. It’s basically another way of saying What can I learn from this? And for this question, there’s always an answer!

See, it’s not a question of whether or not you make mistakes. You’re going to. That’s called being human. The real question is: Are you making the same mistakes? These two questions: What’s the opportunity? and What’s the lesson? will help to ensure that that doesn’t happen.

The bottom line is this: Having a project fail doesn’t make you a failure. The only real failure is if you glean no opportunities or lessons from the process.


About the Author:

29-time Emmy Award winner and Hall of Fame keynote speaker Bill Stainton, CSP is an expert on Innovation, Creativity, and Breakthrough Thinking. He helps leaders and their teams come up with innovative solutions — on demand — to their most challenging problems.
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