What if we treated failure less like a sunset and more like a sunrise? Photo credit: Modification of a photo by NBphotostream shared via Flickr Creative Commons

The Four-Letter Word We Avoid at All Costs: Fail. But Should We Avoid It After All?

By: Allison Jolley

Topic: Learning networks

Type: Fantastic Failure

Tell me about a time that you failed.

That’s one of the most classic interview questions. And the trick, supposedly, is to tell a story about a slight error that, thanks to your creativity and determination, actually led to a big victory. Acing the question is all about shifting the interview panel’s focus from failure to what a rock star you are, while somehow still coming across as humble. Don’t even say the word “failure” in your answer, and definitely don’t say “weakness,” right?

Sugar coating has its place (which, for better or worse, probably includes an interview for your dream job), but one place that provides a great opportunity to talk honestly about failure is the realm of shared learning. That’s why we’re introducing a new blog series focused on failures. Sure, we’ll spice it up with some humor, and we’ll certainly look for opportunities to highlight how people mitigated their failures. Sometimes, there might even be a positive outcome. But we’re going to talk failures. Are you in?

Photo of person with their head on a desk, implying "defeat," with the following text imposed: "Failure. Let's start talking about it."

To kick off the series, I’d like to share a bit of Annie Schmidt’s recent Washington Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network blog:

Failure is a loaded word — so loaded, in fact, that most of us avoid using it or discussing it at all costs. If we talk at all about things that didn’t go quite the way they should have, we talk about “unexpected outcomes” or how “opportunities for growth were highlighted.” Regardless of what words we use, we tend to pull our punches a little when it comes to discussing failures. Sometimes that is because we want to protect ourselves and our funding. Who wants to explain poor outcomes to a granting agency? Sometimes, other people are invested (financially, politically or personally) in the project and discussing its shortcomings involves more than just one individual coming to terms with another set of “unexpected outcomes.”

Perhaps a public blog is not the best method to discuss mistakes that involve others, but it isn’t possible to have a beer with everyone working in this field! As a result, we need to find a way to talk about things that aren’t perfect [ …] Nursing “opportunities for growth” in private does all of us a disservice. It can set unrealistic expectations among our peers that every attempt to further a mission is easy, immediately successful, and totally without error. The unwillingness to share the “uh-oh’s” or even the “oh no’s” dooms others to discover them for themselves.

If you’d like to participate in the series (i.e., you’re willing to share a failure related to community wildfire resilience), you can contact me through my author profile at the top of this post. If you’re a bit uneasy about the idea, be sure to read the first Fantastic Failure next month, as it may give you some motivation. After that, we aim to share at least one Fantastic Failure a quarter.

Fail Forward’s website offers great resources for understanding safe and productive ways to share your failures. This tip sheet provides ideas regarding how storytellers can frame failures to maximize learning. It also offers tips for listeners to get the most out of learning from others’ failures.

Stay tuned for the first Fantastic Failure next month, and here’s to our continued, shared learning!

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12 thoughts on “The Four-Letter Word We Avoid at All Costs: Fail. But Should We Avoid It After All?”

  1. Gloria Erickson says:

    I like it. Great idea Allison!

  2. Tim Kirkpatrick says:

    I have worked in a number of tough and critical areas in my life. I have learned that it is far better to talk simply about what was done and what could not be done and why in both cases. I have done my share of spin and word smithing and it has its place in advertising and some other areas, sometimes.

    In our case be clear and accurate, it counts more than coddling the wall walkers. Our position and goals are clear and reasonable and that makes them palatable on their own. We are not building a 1000mph engine and car, we are herding cats to improve life and reduce risks in that life.

  3. Liz Davy says:

    I like the idea.

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