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The Wisdom of Failure

I had the honor to speak at a recent Clinton Global Initiative University panel addressing one of the most uncomfortable topics for us all to discuss: personal failure.

Moderated by author and journalist Kathryn Schulz, her recent book, Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, touches upon how our society rewards correctness and success, while shaming us when we make mistakes.

We often are embarrassed by our failures because we think they reflect our shortcomings rather than signal the need to take risks and stretch ourselves beyond our comfort zone. I have learned from experiences that failure is a wonderful teacher! These moments of disappointment offer practical lessons, and actually make us stronger, as we evolve our plan to take on a challenge or adjust our way of thinking. My fellow panelist Biz Stone, Co-Founder of Twitter, put it quite clearly, “failure looks good on your resume,” as it signals to your employers and peers that you have grown and been tested.

On my desk sits one of my favorite quotes by Robert H. Schuller, “What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?” So many times the possibility of failure paralyzes us, making one incapable of daring to think big or act boldly. It’s critical to realize that we all will inevitably face failure, even the best and brightest do, but it’s how you deal with such moments that are important. I’ve learned a few good lessons to handle setbacks:

1) Have your kitchen cabinet—friends and family that will be there to support you when you fall down
2) Maintain your “North Star”—this is that drive and passion that guides you on your course to what you want to achieve, no matter how much evidence or how many people tell you to do otherwise.

Social entrepreneurs are absolutely great teachers on turning moments of failure into assets. Robin Chase, Founder & Former CEO of Zipcar, explained to the panel how a big pricing mistake made in the early days of Zipcar was confronted by being transparent and honest with customers, rather than facing a flawed business model down the road. This confirmed Zipcar’s solid values to the public; Zipcar went on to become the world’s largest car sharing service.

Another habit we can emulate from successful entrepreneurs: ask for help. This is one of the things I struggled most with. I spent my twenties convinced that I had to be really good at everything. My self-worth was incredibly tied to this vision of excellence and it was simply exhausting and unrealistic. As I got older and hopefully (!) wiser, I finally released this unrealistic vision of myself and instead focused on strengthening a few things at which I excelled, while building a team that compensated for those areas at which I had less skill.

This strategy was supported by my co-panelist Ashifi Gogo, who received his PhD in Innovation from Dartmouth, the first such PhD in the country. Ashifi explained how the best innovators minimize their failures by seeking advice from older, wiser leaders to avoid making common mistakes. You should too!

We should all feel more comfortable openly talking about our failures and the road bumps on the way to success. Or as Being Wrong best concludes, “error is both a given and a gift – one that can transform our worldviews, our relationships, and, most profoundly, ourselves.”

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