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Using Failure as a Tool for Success

Posted on: August 16th, 2019 by Simon Swords

Failure is an inevitable part of life. However, failing at something does not necessarily have to be a bad thing as some people might choose to believe. 

The optimists among us will recognise failure, not as a sign to quit while you’re ahead, but as a sign not to. Failure is an opportunity. 

Humour me for a moment if you will and think about a weightlifter. I know what you’re probably thinking – ‘what has a weightlifter got to do with success and failure?’ Well, it’s quite simple really.  

‘Lifting to failure’ is a common term used by trainers and athletes. Pushing yourself as far as you can go allows you to realise your capabilities, but if you avoid your limits you will never be able to reach your peak. It’s sometimes the fear of failure that stops us from finding out whether we could have succeeded in the first place. 

Yes, I digress a little, but it all leads to this. When building muscle, you must first damage the tissue, but it will heal bigger and stronger than it was before and sooner than you could imagine you are able to lift more weight than you ever could. 

The same is true for all of our pursuits in life. Failure sets us up to bounce higher than we fall. In short – failure makes us stronger!

Learn from Failure

As a software development company, we understand just how important it is to react to mistakes in a timely and efficient manner. At the end of the day, fixing bugs and getting systems back up and running when something breaks or fails to work as intended is all part of our job; and when an incident occurs we work as fast as we can to investigate the root of the problem, fix the underlying issue and return the system to its normal operating conditions. 

You might think that coming across these hurdles would feel like the end of the world – that we have built a product we would expect to work 24/7 with no concerns of anything ever going wrong. Of course, that would be wonderful in the ideal world; however, sometimes things do go wrong that are either out of our power, are a result of basic human error or simply couldn’t have been foreseen. 

It’s these issues that help us to develop our skills even further and to apply or change logic in other areas if we come across things that perhaps don’t quite work the way they were initially intended. 

One of the greatest things about life is how we are ever-evolving and learning new things; so to be able to adopt the attitude of ‘sure, it didn’t quite work the way we’d have hoped this time around, but we’re now in an even better position when we come to tackle it next time’ is the absolute best way of thinking. It makes room for skill and knowledge sharing, creativity and innovation in the workplace. That’s something that we really strive for here at Atlas. 

Top Tips

So how do you learn from failure? Wonder no more, because below are some great tips for learning from your failures: 

  • Take the risk – adopt the attitude of nothing ventured, nothing gained. If it doesn’t turn out the way you wanted it to then at least you’re better off in knowledge. 
  • Know that it’s okay to fail – Always keep an open mind and know that you will experience lessons that will help you to understand and do better next time.
  • Realise that experience is the best teacher – You could have all of the knowledge and planning in the world behind you, but unless you have experience (good or bad) in your endeavours, then you will never be in a position to improve.
  • Let yourself fail –  I mean, don’t set yourself up to fail if you don’t have to, but allow yourself the freedom to fail so that you can learn from it.
  • Embrace the fear of failure and let it help you succeed – The fear of failure can be taken one of two ways. It’s either a hindrance as you can let it stop you from trying at all or it can help you to fly as you become even more determined to succeed.
  • Know that failure is an opportunity – Welcome failure as you would an old friend. Without it, how can there ever be a success? The fees for learning from failure may seem too high sometimes, but in the long run you will somehow discover it a worthwhile price to pay.
  • Adopt a post-mortem culture – Establish an internal process that helps you to identify where you went wrong and how to fix or avoid the issue in future. More on ‘post-mortems’ below.

The Post-Mortem Culture

A post-mortem is a process designed to help you to learn from past mistakes and, typically, involves an analysis of the incident or a discussion soon after the event has happened. This allows you to dissect what happened, why and what steps can be taken in the future to either fix the problem or ensure that it won’t occur again. 

It’s not about pointing fingers at any given person or team, but about using what was learned to build resilience and prepare for future issues that may arise along the way. By discussing failures in public and working together to investigate their root causes, everyone gets the opportunity to learn from each incident and to be involved with any next steps. Documentation of this process provides the team and future teams with a lasting resource that they can turn to whenever necessary.

While post-mortems are used primarily to understand engineering problems, organisations everywhere — tech or not — can benefit from post-mortems as a critical analysis tool after any event, crisis, or launch. 

Some of the most valuable things to be gained from performing post-mortems include:

  • Encouraging blameless and constructive feedback.
  • Focusing on improvement and resilience. 
  • Promoting a collaborative process. 

Embracing Failure

Sure, failing at ventures that you would prefer to get right straight off the bat can be frustrating, but there are some advantages to making mistakes that we could all learn to embrace a bit more. Some of my favourites include: 

  • Failure teaches us! If we never got anything wrong, we would never be able to improve. Failure can create an emotional indent on our brains which helps us not make the same mistakes again – after all, who wants to feel embarrassed for not knowing the capital city of a certain country or how to spell a specific word more than once?
  • Failure reveals ability. Going back to my weightlifting example, you won’t ever know how much weight you can lift until a time that you reach a weight that you can’t. 
  • Failure inspires. When we don’t let discouragement hold us back, failure makes our desire to achieve even stronger. It also inspires others who look on at you picking yourself up and getting back on the horse to do the same. 
  • Failure is better than regret. Even if you do fail, at least you know that you couldn’t do it. If you never try, you’ll never know whether you would have been able to. 
  • Failure leaves us open to better opportunities. Think of a time when you were turned down for a job, for example. I bet a better one came along. Maybe it’s my romanticism, but I like to believe that things always happen the way they were meant to. 
  • Failure makes success feel that bit sweeter. Victory can be appreciated that much more when we’ve already tasted defeat. 

Simon Swords


Managing Director

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