I’ve taken a lesson in failure from my fourteen month old baby daughter. She does fail forward with the best of them. I know “fail forward” is a bit of a controversial maxim. With all that I’ve heard and read on both sides, I think it’s primarily a semantic argument. So, whatever your thoughts on the maxim, my daughter’s pretty smart.
THE BABY STORY
She’s walking now. That’s new. Just a few short weeks ago, she couldn’t really even stand on her own. She needed something to pull herself up by, to hold on to. Once she’d gotten good at “cruising,” walking around while holding onto furniture, I could see she wanted to walk unsupported. She wanted to try out what everyone else was doing. She’d hold on to a chair or coffee table and step away, going as far as she could while still holding on. She’d look at me across the room. She’d stretch and strain to reach me. Then she’d let go, sit down, and crawl the rest of the way.
There was something she wanted to do but couldn’t. She didn’t get frustrated. She just kept trying. Every day, she stretched a bit further. Her grip on the furniture got a little lighter. She stretched far enough one day that only the tips of her fingers grazed the tabletop before she sat down to crawl. She smiled.
Soon after that, she climbed onto her toy chest. After sitting there for a few moments, she pushed herself up onto her hands and feet, her rump in the air, and then she straightened. And there she stood, atop the box, grinning from ear to ear, triumphant. She balanced there, on this small box, with nowhere she could go. But she balanced there, for thirty seconds. Then she looked around like she wanted to take a step. All around her, though, there were edges. She sat down, unfazed.
“Our failures can be inspiring. And if that’s true, then certainly our victories, no matter how small can be extra inspiring. But only if we notice them.”
Then, I came home one day and sat on the sofa. She turned from the nearby chair she was holding onto and fell forward into the hands I held out to her. And she giggled like a fiend. What was new here was that she’d mustered the guts to go for it. She giggled with the thrill of it. As she fell, headlong into my hands, she’d moved her feet – step, step, step – making this a kind of walk-fall. Her body was almost horizontal by the third step. It really was more fall than walk. She said, “more.” And so I picked her up, and she repeated her fall, stepping as she toppled like a felled tree. “More.” Lift. Step. Fall. “More.” Lift. Step. Fall. “More.” Again and again. Giggle-fest.
After doing this for a couple of days, she stopped, and spent her time instead crawling. Then, one day, she stood and established her balance. With spoon held aloft like a cheerleader’s baton and shouting something that sounded like “go,” she took six solid steps forward.
As she’s learned to walk a city block at a time without falling down, she’s been a dogged student of one step after another. When she falls, she gets back up. When she falls hard, she cries for a few seconds, then gets back up. She smiles a lot. Sometimes she laughs about it all.
A FAIL FORWARD PERSPECTIVE: Everything Is An Offer
There is a principal in improv – Everything is an offer. That means we can take inspiration from anything, because there’s information in every interaction, every event, every failure and every victory. Our failures can be inspiring. And if that’s true, then certainly our victories, no matter how small can be extra inspiring. But only if we notice them. Everything is an offer.
I’ve taken a lesson from my daughter about failure. That’s another example of taking everything as an offer. She’s offered me an approach to my own failures. Humor, celebration, shrug. On my best days, I accept that offer completely.
FAIL FORWARD with a “Yay for failing!”
Another principal we teach our clients in the training we offer is celebration of failure. It only takes a moment. “Yay.” Then, as my business partner says,” we’re moving on with our lives.” Instead of self-recrimination or frustration or shame, I can choose a chuckle in response to a fall. Heck, like my daughter does, I can choose a giggle. And, like my daughter does, I can immediately reboot and try again, enriched by the lessons from my failure.
The difference between my daughter and me – aside from the obvious – is that she’s really good at noticing tiny advances in her skill. She really celebrates her micro-victories.
We set goals for ourselves with the best of intensions, but that all too often don’t work out:
- I’m going to lose weight.
- I’m going to exercise more.
- I’m going to double my numbers at work.
- I’m going to increase my call rate.
- I’m going to improve my close rate.
- I’m going to expand my network of business contacts.
- I’m going to finish what I start.
- I’m going to curb my temper.
- I’m going to read more.
- I’m going to learn a new skill.
- I’m going to spend more time with my family.
But these things are easier said than done. And it’s not just that these are difficult things to accomplish. They’re difficult things to muster our will to even attempt.
Force-of-will motivation doesn’t work. Getting yourself pumped is short lived. Guilt-tripping yourself into action is painful and ineffective.
Why doesn’t my daughter give up after days of trying to walk? She doesn’t dwell on the falls. She focuses on the passionate desire to walk. And, she relishes the tiny victories. She celebrates each incremental improvement with gusto.
When I allow myself to do the same, my goals are more ambitious. I learn and improve quickly. My victories are many. And, I make things happen. I’m driven by passion that’s not dampened by fear of failure. I’m undaunted by shame and frustration at the hiccups along the way. And I’m encouraged by every incremental triumph as a promise of greater success to come.
TRY THIS ON
- Celebrate failure.
- Dust yourself off.
- Yay for failing.
- Notice tiny triumphs.
- Enjoy the growth and relish the learning.
- Everything is an offer.
- Keep going.