15 Ways to Fail Up
The ability to “fail up” is one of the most valuable business tools that you will ever experience, and it can serve you well in school.
That’s because even the most successful people have way more failures in their lives than they ever do successes. As a student, you can learn to fail up by taking your mistakes seriously and trying to learn from them every step of the way.
To help you get a handle on this important attribute of life in general, we have put together a list of 15 ways to fail up. Let’s get started!
1. Allow yourself time to grieve
One of the first rules of failing up is giving yourself time to come to terms with what you did wrong and the fallout from it. This isn’t so easy when you really have your heart set on making the grade or rising to the top of your class.
Still, the grieving period is necessary before you do anything else because it gives you the chance to get the emotional aspects of your failure removed from the equation. Emotion can often hold us back, especially when it comes to understanding our faults.
You get too close to what you are doing and a natural defensiveness rises up out of that closeness. Maybe it is taking things to the extreme, but consider throwing your failure a little mini funeral before deciding to tackle the issue again.
And to understand what grief for your failures looks like, check out these 5 stages from Lifehacker.
2. Focus on mechanics, not yourself
Once you have beaten the grieving process, it is time to think about the mechanics of what went wrong.
Whenever a machine breaks down, it is usually due to to some faulty engineering along the way. That may or may not have anything to do at all with the person who designed it.
Maybe it’s just a faulty part. One that can be easily replaced. This is the part of your mission where you have to think analytically rather than creatively. In book terms, it is the editor to your writer.
A recent article on the Mediate website looked at seven ways to problem solve in the workplace. These steps are pertinent to the student because what you’re doing in school is designed to prepare you for the workplace. Plus, you don’t have to wait for a job before you can start translating some of these steps to the classroom.
3. Think of the worst
Thinking of worst-case scenarios may make you a Debbie downer at parties, but it will also help you foresee problems before they occur.
If you can take your failures and construct wiser experiments in the future, just as an example, then you are more certain to yield the types of results that get you noticed for the right reasons.
Also, a worst-case scenario can serve as encouragement because it allows you to see that even if things go completely wrong, there is a way forward. Getting to that way forward can be painful but will ultimately be rewarding.
For more help on how to visualize and respond to worst-case scenarios, we recommend checking out The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook: How to Escape from Quicksand, Wrestle an Alligator, Break Down a Door, Land a Plane… by Joshua Piven and David Borgenicht, available here through Amazon.
4. Work failure in to the equation
This is sort of an extension of the worst-case scenario but only on a more molecular level.
If you are working failures of all different sizes into the equation for whatever it is you’re doing, then you can start to more fully understand the why part of a problem.
Rather than seeing that the car starts when you turn the key and leaving it at that, you understand that the key triggers the alternator and brings the engine to life.
If nothing happens once that alternator has done its thing, and you are getting zero power, then you can start to work out different scenarios and pinpoint where the problems may lie.
Perhaps a dead battery?
Without that more granular understanding, you will never know what needs fixed or how to fix it and you will be an easy mark for some of the more unscrupulous people who do. Know what can go wrong and take the necessary steps to avoid it.
And if you need help with that, we recommend checking out Entrepreneur contributor Jerry Jao’s excellent piece, “Why Entrepreneurs Should Plan for Failure, Not Success.” Much more uplifting than it sounds!
5. Do not be deterred
It is easy to give up in the short-term, but it can lead to far worse scenarios in the long-term.
People who do not give up easily generally come out of their failures wiser and more knowledgeable and more ready to advance with whatever it is they are trying to learn.
One of the best examples that we like to use is the difference between the student, who does all his homework but doesn’t understand any of it, and the student, who completes only 75% of his homework but always learns something in the process.
While the first student may have a 100% in homework, that percentage will not stand up to scrutiny if he is making C’s and D’s on every test.
But the student who makes 75% on his homework and 93 percents on his exams, will likely make a better grade and will definitely be more equipped to advance in the material. It is this ability to keep oneself from getting deterred that makes the latter student more capable than the former.
Need some perseverance quotes to keep yourself going? Check out these 1,000 from Goodreads.
6. Make peace with risk
Risk is something that entrepreneurs are seldom afraid of. Or maybe it’s not that they are unafraid, they have just learned to control it and make it work for them.
To make peace with risk, you have to understand that sometimes the chances you are taking will not pay off. In fact, that is often the case.
Graham Winfrey of Inc. Magazine has a wonderful piece showing you the three ways that you can learn to take smarter risks. It’s something that will be beneficial to you as you move through college.
While it’s written from an entrepreneurial standpoint, it also translates well to the classroom.
7. Remove these two words from your vocabulary
While a healthy vocabulary is always important to being able to express yourself, there are two words that it can never hurt to eliminate, at least figuratively.
Those two words are excuses and blame.
If you are always making excuses for your failures and always trying to shift the blame somewhere else, then you are getting too distracted by the things that are simply not important.
By eliminating these two words from your vocabulary – that is, eliminating their ability to control the narrative – you can focus on constructive and actionable steps forward.
For additional help, read Forbes’ Cy Wakeman and her piece, “The Blame Game: Common Excuses for Not Succeeding at Work.” Substitute “work” for “school,” and you’ll find that much of it still applies.
8. Determine the lesson from your failure
There is always a lesson that you can learn from failure. You simply have to be listening for it.
Sometimes the lessons are obvious. For example, alter the one or two things that went wrong and the experiment that you were conducting works out.
But sometimes the lessons are not so obvious. You are trying to solve a problem in the short term that will not even matter in the long term.
We like to use Polaroid as an example of this. Polaroid spent much of its time trying to figure out ways to stay competitive in the instant camera market. What it should have been doing is focusing resources on new technologies that would make instant cameras obsolete.
Had it learned the not so obvious lesson ahead of time, it would have been able to see the forest for the trees. Instead it was supplanted by other companies, smart phones, etc.
To get a better idea of just how important failure can be to teaching you a better way, check out these 21 important lessons learned from failure via the Wanderlust Worker website.
9. Pinpoint one positive (at least)
When we fail — and we say “when” here because it will happen — it’s important that we don’t get too down on ourselves.
A good way to keep this from happening is to focus on something that you’ve learned or benefited from in some way from the failure.
Many people adopt the mindset that looks at failure as just one of the steps in success. When it no longer becomes an end result but rather part of a bigger, more successful process, failure is not so scary.
For those of you who struggle with this, we recommend the Positivity Blog’s “How to Stay Positive: 11 Smart Habits.”
10. Be thinking of new scenarios before, during and after the failure is complete
Always be looking ahead at the next experiments that you can run or the next piece of information that can make you better equipped for a subject area or task.
By thinking of scenarios before, during, and after, the failure is complete, it becomes easier to do some of the other things on this list.
One of the great object lessons for teaching you how to look ahead is the Rubik’s Cube. In this video, you can see how to chart your moves in advance in order to solve the Cube’s riddle.
11. Learn from how others have failed
Plenty of people have failed before you. People you admire. Look up some of them online. See what they have to say about failure. Simply searching something like “Steve jobs” and “failure” will provide a wealth of information.
One of the most inspirational pieces in this regard belongs to Business Insider for their “Successful people who failed at first” article from July 2015. Writer Rachel Sugar offers a glimpse at 29 to be exact.
Lesson here: you’re not alone.
12. Replace ‘fail’ with ‘growth’
If failing is growing, then you are conditioning yourself to look at your shortfalls as advancements.
What kind of a crazy statement is that? Try it. Rather than saying, “I failed my history test,” say this: “I grew from the F I got on my history test because…”
This conditions you to redefine failure as growth and to look for evidence of how what you didn’t know created more knowledge moving forward.
As Zach Cutler wrote for Entrepreneur in 2014, “Failure is the seed of growth and success.” Still relevant today and it will be many years from now.
13. Be around other ‘failures’ in real time
Joining an improv group is one of the smartest things you can do if you are hoping to fail up.
Why is that the case? Because the whole point of doing improv is to see what works and what doesn’t work in real time. That creates a lot of failure. But it also creates a lot of organic magic.
High Existence looks at 10 ways improv will make you awesome here. Lesson: don’t be so quick to dismiss drama class as a viable elective. The usefulness goes well beyond a staged play.
14. See the long game
If you can see how a test grade is going to make you smarter and more prepared for a career in engineering, for example, then it is not so hard to live with a C or D or even an F. You have to learn from it, however.
But then it is easy to learn when a six-figure job and the house of your dreams are fueling your vision! (Come on, that’s not just us, right?)
Marci Alboher with Forbes has some more practical suggestions in her excellent piece, “4 tips to play the long game in work and life.” Great advice!
15. Chart progress
Progress is often the thing that keeps us going when the failures pile up.
Take a moment when you can to see how far you have come. We all start from somewhere. That place is usually a clean slate. No knowledge, no accomplishments, no skills, no hope.
But along the way, with each failure, we are able to fill in some of the gaps and see that a new base of knowledge starts to emerge.
Failing up may not sound like the most glamorous way of achieving success, but it is necessary to get to the places where you want to be in life. What are some of the moments in your life where you failed at something but got something better in return? Share your learning experiences below.
[Image via Hollywood Improv]