For most of us, failure comes with baggage . . . From a very early age, the message is drilled into our heads: Failure is bad; failure means you didn’t study or prepare; failure means you slacked off or – worse! – aren’t smart enough to begin with. Thus, failure is something to be ashamed of. This perception lives on long into adulthood, even in people who have learned to parrot the oft-repeated arguments about the upside of failure. . . . And yet, even as they nod their heads in agreement, many readers of those articles still have the emotional reaction that they had as children. They just can’t help it: That early experience of shame is too deep-seated to erase. All the time in my work, I see people resist and reject failure and try mightily to avoid it, because regardless of what we say, mistakes feel embarrassing. There is a visceral reaction to failure: It hurts.
We need to think about failure differently. I’m not the first to say that failure, when approached properly, can be an opportunity for growth. But the way most people interpret this assertion is that mistakes are a necessary evil. Mistakes aren’t a necessary evil. They aren’t evil at all. They are an inevitable consequence of doing something new (and, as such, should be seen as valuable; without them, we’d have no originality). And yet, even as I say that embracing failure is an important part of learning. I also acknowledge that acknowledging this truth is not enough. That’s because failure is painful, and our feelings about this pain tend to screw up our understanding of its worth. To disentangle the good and the bad parts of failure, we have to recognize both the reality of the pain and the benefit of the resulting growth.
Left to their own devices, most people don’t want to fail. But Andrew Stanton isn’t most people. As I’ve mentioned, he’s known around Pixar for repeating the phrases, ‘fail early and fail fast’ and ‘be wrong as fast as you can.‘ He thinks of failure like learning to ride a bike; it isn’t conceivable that you would learn to do this without making mistakes – without toppling over a few times. ‘Get a bike that’s as low to the ground as you can find, put on elbow and knee pads so that you’re not afraid of falling, and go,’ he says. If you apply this mindset to everything new you attempt, you can begin to subvert the negative connotation associated with making mistakes. Say Andrew: ‘You wouldn’t say to somebody who is first learning to play the guitar, You better think really hard about where you put your fingers on the guitar neck before you strum, because you only get to strum once, and that’s it. And if you get that wrong, we’re going to move on. That’s no way to learn, is it?’