How to talk about failure without using the F word

By Andy Burrows

Do you feel like a failure sometimes?

Do you get embarrassed or demotivated because of things that haven’t gone right for you?

Do you look at other people and get jealous because they’re successful and you’re not?

Well, if so, I hope that my personal reflections will help you.

My biggest failure

When Talita Ferreira was interviewing me for her Leadership Hypothesis video series, she tripped me up unintentionally by asking me a question. She asked me, “could you say there’s a failure in your career somewhere that someone could learn from?”

For some reason, the question I heard (and which sticks in my mind) was: What is your biggest failure?

My heart started pounding at that point, and I had to quickly compose myself. I was being recorded! The show must go on!

I didn’t duck the question. But I don’t think my answer was entirely coherent either! And you can check out the interview and 26 others like it in Talita’s Leadership Hypothesis series.

The essence of my reply was that I hate the word ‘failure’, and I don’t find it a helpful way to think.

Here’s why:

Failure is embarrassing

I regularly turn to definitions of words. And if you want to be specific, ‘failure’ means that you have not achieved what you were aiming at.

So, my first problem with failure, as a concept, is that it puts your efforts in the past tense. “You have not achieved”. It judges your attempt as if it’s final. It’s in the past. It was a failure. It’s gone. Nothing you can do about it!

And there have been failures in my life. I’ve tried a lot of things that haven’t worked out. I wrote out a whole page of them once.

And, the first thing is that they’re embarrassing!

Why? Shouldn’t we be authentic and let others benefit from learning from our failures?

I don’t think it’s that simple.

Failure undermines confidence

On a purely personal level, I found that the more I thought about things in my life as failures the more depressed I got...

... and the less I wanted to try other things. It really undermined my confidence. (We’ll come back to this later.)

I gave myself a good kick when I sat and wrote that page of failures. And I turned the paper over and wrote a list of my successes to cheer myself up!

But here’s why I think it’s naïve to think we can all talk openly about failures:

Failure undermines credibility

Credibility is really important.

And two factors in credibility (according to Stephen M.R. Covey in The Speed of Trust) are capabilities and results.

When I fail to get the results I aim for, I damage my credibility.

And until I can get the results I want, I can’t claim that level of capability. And that also damages my credibility.

I published an article a couple of years ago called Why I’m Not a CFO. It was what I called a “reality check” for those who think that career progression is easy. It was the story of some of my career and life hiccups.

And someone senior in Finance wrote to me, basically telling me that I was stupid for publishing something like that, because it didn’t do my credibility any good. People want to learn from someone who has a track record of success as a CFO or FD, otherwise how can you trust that what they say is right?

He had a point.


Admitting failure builds trust

The irony is that when you admit failure, that builds trust. It’s what Stephen M.R. Covey calls “practising accountability”. When you ‘hold your hands up’ and accept that you fell short, people tend to trust you more.

And to an extent, it restores some credibility. It shows your integrity (you value truth and honesty) and your intent (your desire to do a good job is shown through your genuine disappointment at not doing so, and you show you want to help others avoid your mistakes).

So, admitting failure, in many circumstances, within the context of the actual event/project, is best.

But whether you speak about it more widely than that depends on what happens after that.

And here’s where we pivot.

Failing doesn’t make you a failure

There is a big danger, in using the word ‘failure’, that you start to identify with the word. And then you start to say, “I am a failure.”

That’s an example of what psychologist Carol Dweck would call a “Fixed Mindset” (see Mindset by Carol Dweck).

Very briefly, a Fixed Mindset is a belief that your intellectual capacity, or capacity for any skill, is fixed. When you fail at something, you assume you have reached that capacity. And if it’s short of what you needed for what you wanted to achieve, then that makes you “a failure”.

And one of the consequences of the Fixed Mindset belief is that you see no point in trying any more, because you’ve reached the limits of your natural talent. Failure is proof that you’ve reached your natural limits.

People with a Fixed Mindset believe that limits are innate. They are part of you. For example, “I’m just not CFO material,” or “I’m not leadership material”. Just like a leopard can’t change its spots because they are part of being a leopard, a failure can’t stop being a failure because that’s what he is. And the past failures are simply proof of that.

It’s the words “I am” that are the problem.

And that was my problem when I wrote out the list of failures I mentioned earlier. It undermined my motivation and confidence, because I’d started to believe that anything I did was doomed to failure. I was almost gripped by a Fixed Mindset.

I had to learn this lesson:

Just because you failed (objective fact), doesn’t make you a failure (Fixed Mindset belief).

A Growth Mindset is better

A Growth Mindset, on the other hand, is the belief that your capacity is not fixed. You can grow and push your capacity bigger. Your intelligence can keep growing. Your skills can keep improving.

Failure, within a growth mindset, is actually essential, because it’s only through failure that you learn what doesn’t work and train yourself to do better next time.

The funny thing is that it’s having the belief that makes the difference, not whether the belief is true.

If you believe that you can keep growing and developing and improving, then you will.

If you believe that you’ve reached your limits, then you will probably not move forward much further.

It’s almost self-fulfilling.

As Henry Ford said, “whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right!”

Belief makes things possible

Being objective (or perhaps philosophical) for a minute, it’s obvious that human beings don’t have unlimited capacity for anything. We are, by creation, finite.

But that doesn’t mean that Fixed Mindset belief is closer to the truth.

The truth is that all of us always have room to grow. We can achieve more than we ever thought possible, when we set our minds to it.

World records get broken. That means that humankind is always pushing past what used to be considered the upper limits of performance. And that happens because some people believe that it’s possible for someone to break records, so why not them?

In that sense, belief makes things possible.

A Growth Mindset helps you “face the brutal facts”

But let’s come back to failure.

A Growth Mindset takes the sting out of failure on a personal level. It can’t take away the immediate damage to credibility. But it will prevent a fatal blow to your confidence.

Admiral James Stockdale, who faced incredible hardship as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, said:

"You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end - which you can never afford to lose - with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they may be."

Facing those “brutal facts” is something that we must do if we are to move forward. To use an analogy, if you run into a big boulder in the middle of the road which blocks the way completely, you will not get any further if you don’t acknowledge there is a big obstacle in your way. You have to face the brutal fact that there is a big boulder in your way!

Some people go into denial, make excuses, shift the blame. Sometimes the facts are brutal and feel harsh, especially when we have to admit we did something wrong, made a mistake or missed something.

But then when forced to face those brutal facts, a Fixed Mindset would give up at that point, saying, “I’ve reached the end of the road. I’d better go home or go somewhere else. It’s pointless trying to get to my original destination.” That’s why Fixed Mindset people often prefer denial.

A Growth Mindset, on the other hand, doesn’t take it personally. Setbacks, failures, mistakes, challenges, difficulties – all these things say nothing about us qualitatively. They are just things in our history. We tried to achieve something in the past. It didn’t work out. That’s all. That past event does not determine our future ability.

And that’s why a Growth Mindset finds it easier to get over ‘failure’.

A Growth Mindset doesn’t think in terms of failure. There’s a blockage, a difficulty. It’s just something else in life to get round.

The response is never, “I can’t.”

It’s “how can I?”

Learning from failure

So, here’s one tip for learning from failure.

Look at what happened, this thing that, objectively speaking, going by the definition, was a failure. You set out to do something and you didn’t succeed.

You are not powerless. You can choose a response.

Stephen R. Covey pointed this out in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

He pictured things in two circles – your circle of concern and your circle of influence. Your circle of concern contains everything that you’re concerned about. Inside that circle sits the circle of influence, which contains all the things you can do.

His first insight is to say that we should focus more of our energy inside our circle of influence. Many of us struggle because we’re bothered about things outside our circle of influence, with things we can do nothing about (like the past or the consequences of past actions).

The second step is then to think about three categories of control in the situation:

  1. No control
  2. Influence
  3. Direct control

Without elaborating further, the main point for me is that in each of those three categories – even where we have no control, or even influence – the first step of response is in our circle of influence.

If you have direct control, that’s obvious. Just decide what to do to learn from the failure or difficulty.

If you have influence, you can work on your interpersonal skills and try to get the help you need.

If you have no control, you can decide how to respond to it mentally and emotionally. You can decide to wait for the situation to change. You decide your response. And you have freedom to choose to do that positively.

Failure doesn’t have to be in your vocabulary

So, I want to finish with a great quote from a millionaire entrepreneur who now coaches aspiring entrepreneurs. James Wedmore said that "When you set out to achieve a goal, you either get the result that you wanted or the lesson that you needed."

He then pointed out that the word ‘failure’ doesn’t appear in that sentence. If you’re hearing the word failure, it’s because you imported it.

When we learn to ride a bike and we fall off, we don’t lay on the floor saying, “I’m such a failure.” We don’t even see it as failure. We don’t see it as anything. We simply get back on and try again, learning from what we didn’t quite do right.

"When you set out to achieve a goal, you either get the result that you wanted or the lesson that you needed."

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About the Author

Andy Burrows is a popular writer and speaker on a wide range of topics in Business Finance and Accounting. He provides online training and coaching, through the unique My Finance Coach service from Supercharged Finance.

He was named as one of the top voices on LinkedIn in 2019 in Finance, Accounting and FP&A.

Qualified as a chartered accountant, Andy has worked in many senior Finance roles over the last 20 years, including Finance Director at one stage, across many different sectors in a variety of companies.

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