What does it take to be truly successful in life? How do industry leaders and celebrated athletes stay ahead of the game? The answer is simple: they fail.

Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed

A common theme linking successful people, organisations and systems is a healthy and empowering attitude towards failure. Failure should not be seen as shameful or stigmatising, but instead an exciting and enlightening opportunity to grow and to improve.

It sounds simple, doesn’t it? Learning from failure has the status of a cliché, but it turns out that a failure to learn from mistakes has been one of the single greatest obstacles to human progress. Matthew Syed, in his book Black Box Thinking shows how all paths to success must pass through failure. Great performers and teams have learned to change their perspective on failure by first understanding it, then learning from it so that they can improve and then ultimately overcoming it.

All of us are aware, in our different ways, that we find it difficult to accept our own failures. When our professionalism is threatened, we are liable to put up defences. We don’t want to think of ourselves as incompetent or inept and we don’t want to undermine the credibility our colleagues have placed in us. Society, as a whole, has a deeply contradictory attitude to failure. Even as we find excuses for our own failings, we are quick to blame others for the same mistakes. We have a deep instinct to find scapegoats. The effect of this can damage openness and encourage cover-ups. And as a consequence, it destroys the vital information we need in order to learn. Studies have shown we are often so worried about failing that we will create vague goals so that nobody can point the finger if we don’t achieve them.

“We all want to succeed, whether we are entrepreneurs, sportsmen, politicians, scientists or parents,” says Syed. “But at a collective level, at the level of systemic complexity, success can only happen when we admit our mistakes, learn from them, and create a climate where it is, in a certain sense, ‘safe’ to fail.”

But how do we do this? How do we overcome our innate fear of failure and instead see it as a necessary component of success?

Whether developing a new product, improving a core skill or just trying to get a critical decision right, it’s important to acknowledge your mistakes.

Marginal Gains

When Sir David Brailsford, General Manager of Team Sky was asked about his extraordinary success in cycling, his answer was clear: “It is about marginal gains,” he said. “The approach comes from the idea that if you break down a big goal into small parts, and then improve on each of them, you will deliver a huge increase when you put them all together. I realised early on that having a grand strategy was futile on its own. You also have to have to look at a smaller level, to figure out what is working and what isn’t. Each step may be small, but the aggregation can be huge”.

And this approach applies to anyone and any organisation—regardless the size or industry. A key learning from failure is to remember that a micro viewpoint is equally important to a macro one.

Adopt the right mindset

Cognitive dissonance is the term coined by Leon Festinger to describe the discomfort we feel when we hold contradictory beliefs, ideas or are placed in situations that challenge our beliefs and values. And when we make a mistake or are faced with failure, we find ourselves in a mentally stressed state (cognitive dissonance) and our first instinct is to try and cover it up. Unfortunately, this approach is hardwired and “… when most of us are confronted with evidence that challenges our deeply held beliefs we are more likely to reframe the evidence than we are to alter our beliefs. We simply invent new reasons, new justifications, new explanations. Sometimes we ignore the evidence altogether,” says Syad.

If we can recognise this and then stop ourselves from covering up the truth and supress the need to blame, we can then adopt the mindset that failure is nothing more than an opportunity to learn and grow—a necessary step that precedes success.

Creating a growth culture

The most important quality I look for in people joining Dyson is the willingness to try, fail and learn. I love that spirit, all too rare in the world today.

James Dyson, Founder of Dyson, Ltd.

Top performers and successful people continuously work out how to improve and learn from their mistakes, no matter how advanced their careers are. They understand you have to keep pushing yourself (and your organisation) towards success through one failure/opportunity-to-learn-and-grow after another. However, most importantly, their ability to embrace failure and acknowledge it as a crucial part of the overall journey is key to their organisation’s success. It is this mindset that allows them to create a culture that is honest, collaborative and has a positive attitude towards errors—one that embraces adaptation and allows innovation and growth to flourish.

My colleague, Fiona Jury, recently wrote an article, “Grit”, which talks about what it takes for people to be successful. In her article, she highlights grit as a key attribute, but also pays tribute to successful people’s ability to learn and grow. She acknowledges that the path to success isn’t a straight line and is fraught with mistakes. It is one’s ability to stay motivated, to be open to their own shortcomings and maintain a desire to learn and improve that defines success. It is how we deal with failure and what we choose to learn from it that links successful people, organisations and systems.