Try Failures, with a Small “f”

There I was, staring at the questionnaire for my new career coach. Successes, failures, satisfactions and disappointments at different stages of my life. Uncomfortably, I remembered my failures. The work presentation that bombed. The relationship that didn’t work out. The time I caught a crab (rowing term for “screwed up”) at the Oxford spring races. Takings deep breaths and gritting my teeth, I wrote down as many as I could remember.

When I met with my coach, Sasha Grinshpun, she asked me what my definition of failure was. I explained that I didn’t think I’d had many failures in my life, and the ones I had, I had learned from. Valuable work lessons, valuable life lessons, and keeping my oar in the water in the next race. The conversation moved on from there, but something didn’t quite fit.

Sitting on a plane a day later, I reflected on my relationship with the word “failure”. To me, failure was always a bad thing, even if it could be somewhat redeemed by that after-the-fact learning. And yet, the principles of design thinking were deeply appealing to me; small experiments, or “prototypes,” where you learn from the outcome. Most will not go how you expect – is that failure? – and you take the information and use it to design the next experiment. As a former lab scientist I totally understood the paradigm. But could it really apply to my own life, my own career?

I started to think about other attempts that hadn’t turned out the way I expected. The rental condo that convinced me that property management wasn’t for me….The project team website we built that no one used….The time I didn’t tighten the collar of my oar and flipped my boat. These little “failures” actually created a full and rich life because if I’d stayed sitting on the couch all the time, none of them would have happened.

Up to that point, failure had been this massive thing to be avoided at all cost because of the terrible consequences – Failure with a capital F. But what about failures with a small “f”? These could be outcomes that shape the course of your life and work without massive upheaval, more like stones that bend a river’s flow. Little “f” failures. Try, pick it up, pivot and try again. What if no one reads my first blog post? The first test of my podcast’s sound quality is awful? Try, pick it up, pivot and try again.

If you wanted to create a lot of “little f” failures, what would you dare to try?

Leave a Comment