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Grand Rapids, MI

Embarking Blog

...on the journey towards restoration of all things

Failure?

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One of the phrases that I like to use is "failing forward." I believe that it takes some risk to move forward, and without risk, nothing changes. But with risk comes the possibility of "failure." Honestly, I don't even like that word. Failure surely has a category of its own, but risking new things and not achieving them is not necessarily failure. I had a conversation with someone yesterday about this who worries a lot about failure because his parents continued to tell him over and over and over that he wasn't supposed to fail. They treated him negatively when he "failed," and punished him verbally, if not in other ways. This kind of child-rearing or even management in organizations creates a risk-averse culture that then leads to a lack of innovation, creativity, out-of-the-box, and break-through thinking.

In her book 9 Things Successful People Do Differently, Heidi Grant Halvorson shares some ideas that help move us toward possibility thinking rather than fear of failure thinking. I like her understanding of the difference between "Be Good" goals, and "Get Better" goals. I like this because first of all it's practical, and second of all, it fits with my theology. Theologically, we cannot "be good" in this perfectionist mode. It is impossible to get it all right, and we are sinful, broken people seeking to follow Jesus into the better life. A friend of mine often gets frustrated with sermons he calls antithetical to the gospel - you know the ones - they have an outline like this: "You suck; do better." When I say "get better" I don't mean that kind of thing, but instead, the desire to seek something higher, greater, and more pure and right without the fear of failure, because honestly, failure isn't optional. Failure happens. Get over it already.  And yet that is not an excuse for doing better, being better, and improving. I'm not advocating for a lackadaisical kind of lazy lifestyle, but a focus on getting better rather than being good; a focus on seeking excellence, not perfection; on development rather than accomplishment; and on transformation over success.

Here is how Halvorson describes the difference between be-good goals and get-better goals:

  • Be-good Goals: Put the emphasis on proving you have ability and showing you know how to do something.
  • Get-better Goals: Put the emphasis on developing ability and learning to master a new skill.

In a recent article on the99%.com - ideas on making things happen, called Tripping into Terra Incognita: how mistakes take us to new places,  John Caddell takes on this topic in terms of business management (cf. Six Sigma), and how the focusing on removing mistakes completely and the pursuit of perfection could keep us from accidentally falling into all kinds of great things. He uses examples such as the invention of the first artificial sweetener - saccarin, the process of vulcanizing rubber, not to mention things like the lightbulb and other great inventions. (Remember the old commercials for Reese's Peanut Butter Cups? Or my favorite... those meatball hors d'oeuvres that combine chili sauce and grape jelly... that can't have been on purpose). I love the idea John puts forth that "A mistake is a collision between your perception and reality," and that mistakes take us to the margins, to the unknown, to the unexplored, and that it is in these places that some of the best discoveries emerge. Mistakes often lead us to the place of realizing that our assumptions and beliefs may have been invalid, which can open us to new possibility thinking if we will let it. Think Galileo and the Copernican revolution. Many - myself included - would advocate that it takes true failure of our systems, institutions, and assumptions to create a real and lasting paradigmatic shift in belief and practice. It is failure that leads to incredible success, if we are not paralyzed by it. (Think Steve Jobs.)

  • "Failure" often leads us into accidental discoveries.
  • "Failure" leads to margin rather than mainstream thinking.
  • "Failure" gives us an opportunity to learn, and is a great teacher if we will let it.
  • "Failure" teaches humility, and out of humility often emerges truth that less dependent upon our limited thinking and abilities.

So how about we figure out better ways to raise our children and to treat our employees and colleagues? How about we find ways of embracing "failure," or figuring out how to fail forward in safe contexts that value innovation, out-of-the-box thinking, charity for risk, perfection-aversion, and seeking the opportunity to get better rather than simply getting it right.

Two weeks ago, I preached a sermon entitled "God Perfects Me," which talked about this penchant for perfection so many of us have. If you'd like to hear the podcast, click here. (Note: there was a person during the service who had a seizure - I don't think it was my preaching. What was interesting to me was that this "imperfection" in the service happened on this particular Sunday. In fact, I spoke with the gentleman later, and he was concerned about having been a distraction. I think the point was made for him, for me, and for others... I just wish he hadn't had to experience that.)


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