Raise your hand if you prefer success. How about failure? When we succeed, we often say “whoopee”and quickly move on to the next thing to do. When we fail, we hurry past the mistake and try to erase it from memory. Both of these choices mean that we don’t learn from our experiences.
Many experts believe that people and organizations are far more likely to examine and learn from their failures than they are to analyze why things went well. Others say that the impulse to attach blame to mistakes encourages people to sweep them under the rug or only delve into mistakes on a surface level.
How can you make sure that you gain insight and learn, whether you fail or succeed?
A recent Harvard Business Review article by Francesca Gino and Gary P. Pisano called Why Leaders Don’t Learn From Success points out the pitfalls inherent in your golden moments. The authors say that success can actually breed failure. They note that we make key psychological errors when we succeed, including:
Fundamental attribution errors. We attribute success to our talents, model or strategy and don’t even consider that something unrelated caused our windfall.
Overconfidence bias. When we succeed, our self-confidence increases; too much success can lead us to think we’re infallible.
Failure-to-ask-why syndrome. We succeed. We throw a party. We don’t ask the tough questions to figure out why things went so well or to increase our knowledge about how to replicate success.
The HBR article gives several practical tips for overcoming the pitfalls of success. One of the authors’ recommendations is simply to examine your success with the same rigor as you do your failures. At least spend as much time investigating the causes of success as you do congratulating one another! (Read the article. It will be the best $6.95 you’ve spent in a while.)
The Mistake Manifesto: How Making Mistakes Can Make Us Better by Alina Tugend examines the other side of the coin – learning from your failings. Tugend says “mistake avoidance creates workplaces where making changes and being creative while risking failure is subsumed by an ethos of mistake-prevention – at the cost of daring and innovation.” Bill Gore, founder of the company that makes Gore-Tex, is quoted about the fact that organizations often don’t distinguish “above the line” mistakes from “below the line” mistakes. “Below the line” mistakes can sink the ship, but often “above the line,” minor errors are treated with the same gravity and severe results. People shut off their creative juices if they think that they must always produce success.
Tugend recommends that mistakes be not only accepted, but even rewarded. Even exploring hypothetical options that seem wrong can illuminate what is right. This opens the door to wider thinking, more experimentation and ideas that break the mold. (Tugend’s other recommendations include how to communicate when you make a mistake, and many more brilliant ideas too numerous to list. Read that article, too!)
Both good fortune and mistakes can be barriers to understanding and continuous improvement, if you don’t have your priorities straight. If it’s been awhile since you’ve experienced a major (or even minor) slip-up, think about if you’d view it as lessons to be learned or a failure to forget. Also, did you dissect your last big breakthrough and figure out what really made it so successful? Your answer to those two questions may give you a clue as to whether you value success over achievement. What’s the difference? No one says it better than Helen Hayes:
“My mother drew a distinction between achievement and success. She said achievement is the knowledge that you have studied and worked hard and done the best that is in you. Success is being praised by others. That is nice, but not as important or satisfying. Always aim for achievement and forget about success.”
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