3 experts on failure explain what we can learn from our mistakes

Failure is having a moment in the tech industry. What can that teach us about our limitations and how we measure success?

If at first you don't succeed, wear it like a badge of honour

What can we learn from failure? Should it be as romanticized as it is? (Adam Killick)

Originally published on Nov. 29, 2019.

There seems to be a shift in how corporations view failure these days. Especially in the fast-moving world of tech startups, it's okay to admit your mistakes — and even embrace your failures.

There's an assumption that many new startups will fail, and their founders view those failures as a badge of honour. 

But what is the best way to cope with failure on the job? This week Spark host Nora Young was joined by some guests who have some unique perspectives on what we can do when the going gets rough. 

Here are some of their tips on how to successfully deal with failure: 

Farhan Thawar: Looking stupid can be a superpower

Farhan Thawar

Thawar, VP of Engineering at Shopify in Toronto, believes that looking stupid can be a superpower. He says it's not about the failure, but what you learn from it. 

"There's a line that says success doesn't teach you very much, because in some ways you didn't run into the obstacles that you had to run into. In failures you're put up against an obstacle. You fail. We tried it. It didn't work. No big deal. Let's move on. 

"And I think unless you come up against those obstacles you're not going to learn something new.'What did you learn today?', might be a better line than, 'what did you do today?"

Thawar says you can remove the fear of failure by writing it down.

"I think that probably the best exercise I've done on this is actually writing down the entire downside of a certain opportunity. 

"So for example, let's say you wanted to apply for a new job. I think the thing to do would be to take a piece of paper and write down the full downside if I go for this opportunity and I lose. Big downside is you don't get the job which you don't have today. So I don't think it's that bad. 

"I think most times it's the unknown that people are scared of and when you write it down you'll be like, 'It's not that scary'. And that for me has been the number one tool I've used to overcome the initial fear of trying something big."

Juliana Castro: Failing at one thing doesn't make you a failure

Juliana Castro

Castro, a New York-based graphic designer who wrote a guide called How to embrace mistakes without romanticizing failure, says we should recognize that failure can be a privilege.

"Failure is relative for everybody. Right now we are repeating the narrative that it's only okay to fail if you eventually have something to prove that you succeeded. 

"Being able to try one thing multiple times is a huge privilege. Often the people that get the platform to talk about failure are largely successful people." 

She says that failing at a particular task does not make you a failure.

"One thing that helps me think about failure is the Spanish distinction between the two possible translations for the verb 'to be'. 

"In Spanish there is a difference between kind of a temporary state and an absolute state. And there are exceptions of course, but for the sake of this explanation, the verb 'ser' is kind of an absolute state of your being. You use ser to say that you are a daughter, to say that you are a lawyer. 

"And you use 'estar', which we don't have that distinction in English, to say that you are sad, for example, without it entailing that you are a sad person. Just that you are sad, at this moment, and that it is a temporary state of yourself. It does not define you."

Melanie Stefan: Compile a CV of your failures 

Melanie Stefan (Chris Coe)

Stefan, a lecturer in biomedical sciences at the University of Edinburgh encourages scientists, academics and others to compile a CV of Failures. 

She advises people not to be afraid to talk about their failures. 

"In science and in academia we talk a lot about the things that worked out for us but we never really talk about the failures. So I had this idea of writing a CV a failure that lists all the things that you fail at. 

"And for me, writing out my failures has shown me that I've actually worked very hard to get where I am. I have tried a lot of things. I've failed at a lot of things. But that just means I have put in a lot of work. 

Stefan says that in order to succeed, you have to fail. 

"I have a friend who used to say if you never fail you're not trying hard enough. So I think you can be successful [without failure] probably to a certain extent, but you will never know how successful you could have been because it's likely that you're not exploring your boundaries. 

"And so I think in order to achieve your full potential you have to fail because you have to figure out what your potential is."