Connecting Failure and Feedback


Recently, I overheard some people talking at a coffee shop about their failures. I was entertained, to say the least, when one of them proclaimed that she would never be rich like Oprah, because Oprah was super talented and she (person at the coffee shop) was such a failure at everything she tried.

I started thinking about the number of times I have failed in my lifetime. It occurred to me that failure had been part of my life since I can remember. Don’t get me wrong- I am not playing the victim here, but I can remember how hard it was to come home as a young boy with a bad test grade and on the way, rehearse how I would answer the proverbial question from my parents, “So what happened here?” Or- why didn’t you get the part in the school play or, how did I miss that tackle in football? Later in life, I would fail at more impactful things to my life such as losing an account, losing a relationship that mattered or failing at being at my daughter’s birthday party on time.

We all have done it. We have all failed at something and many of us have written off whatever we did as an internal message to our heads that we are just not good at “that thing” in life.  Not until 2001 did I start to understand how failure had a choice associated with it. I was in Washington, DC not long after 9/11 and I was working with a Government Agency on the procurement of equipment to support security in that region. I had just finished a meeting with a senior US official telling me that we were not selected for a key project.

I did not sleep that night. As I stared at the ceiling I thought about what I needed to do differently. This was new thinking for me.  Normally, I would have tucked my tail and ran.

The next morning, I called my contact in DC and asked this question, “What is your overarching concern with regard to this purchase?” After what seemed like a full minute of pause he answered that I had totally failed to understand the situation fully. Suddenly, I realized why I had lost the deal. I approached this deal from the wrong assumption.  I assumed things that were not even close to reality for my customer.  We then discussed my assumptions and his assumptions and we found out that we obviously had a huge communication gap. It was my first time to understand the actual picture in front of me. A few days later, I presented a proposal that addressed the real concern of the customer and it paid off with a win.

I had never consciously treated failure as feedback. Failure was bad and therefore something to avoid. I believed that failure was a measure of my capability and all along it has been a measure of my ability to capitalize on my learnings.

By the way- Oprah was fired from her television-reporting job early in her career because she was deemed “Not suitable for television”! Something tells me she chose to learn from that experience rather than give up on her vision.

How do you treat failure? Are you learning from your mistakes? Do you encourage entrepreneurship internally and allow your team to learn from their mistakes? What would you need to do to make that happen? What do they need to make that happen?

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