The Design Thinker Blog

Theory, practice, and stories from the field. 


Failed? Why you need to share your failure story

Apr 09, 2018

Design thinking encourages failure because failure is a critical step on the road to success. Most of our lives, we have been trained to believe that failing is bad. We have been conditioned to avoid failure and somewhere along the way we have learned to associate failing at something to mean the same thing as being a failure.

Why we need to stop avoiding failure: The trouble with avoiding failure is that, when we avoid failure we are also promoting the status quo. Failure avoidance means that we won’t try something new, which means we continue to do what we have always done because we know it…this, in turn, maintains the status quo. When people tell me they want to grow, whether it is their career, their business, or their social media following, the question I always ask them is, what new things are you willing to try? If you aren’t willing to try new things you aren’t going to see growth. I know I am not saying anything original here when I say, if you keep doing what you are doing, you are going to keep getting what you are getting – it’s worth repeating because it holds true.

Failure presents a brilliant opportunity for learning. Success comes from aligning a specific solution to a specific situation to create a good fit. If you are looking for career advancement, this might mean taking on a task that you haven’t done before to see how your current skills may apply. If you are looking to grow your business, this might mean expanding your service offerings or entering a new market. By taking the leap into something new you might be an instant success in which case – congrats! However, if you didn’t excel at a new venture on the first try, you have just been presented with valuable information. This information tells you what you need to do next, it tells you how you can improve. If you are the business professional looking for advancement, armed with the information that you are lacking the skills you need to take your career to the next step, you might take a new class, ask for mentoring, but now you are one step closer to achieving your goals because you took the leap and learned what it will take to get to the next level. If you are the business owner focused on expanding your business, armed with the information that your current services do not work in other markets, you might start to explore what customers in other markets need, you might conduct surveys, or you might decide to explore other ways of expanding your business. Knowing what will not work gives you insights into what might work.

Many of us don’t dare raise our hands, we don’t dare take a leap, we don’t dare put forth that crazy idea because there is a little voice in our heads that is constantly telling us “failure is bad…avoid it!” If we want to challenge the status quo, if we want to create results, if we want to be innovative problem solvers, if we want to experience growth in our business, our careers, in our lives, we have to stop avoiding failure and start embracing it. To move from avoiding failure to embracing it we have to reframe the mental model we all have about failure.

How to reframe failure: Was there a time you tried something new, and it didn’t work? What did you do? How did you move forward? Have you shared this story? Stories have a powerful way of impacting how we see the world, this is why most life lessons are shared with us in stories. Think about the books from your childhood, those lessons are likely with you today. Stories have a way of influencing us. So, if we want to start refraining our mental models about failure we need to change how we talk about failure. We need to tell people our stories of failure.

It is important to clarify that talking about failure stories isn’t a self-deprecating act. Often what I see happening is when we do talk about our failures, we do it as a form of punishment. Instead of punishing ourselves for something not working out, we need to focus our energies on what we can learn. The purpose of sharing your failure story is to share what you learned and how you moved forward. To prevent your failure story from turning into a pity party follow this recipe:

1. Briefly describe what you tried to do and how it failed

2. How did you feel when you realized what you attempted to do was not going to work?

3. What did you learn about yourself, about the situation?

4. How did you move forward? What did you do next?

Notice that 3/4 of this recipe involves talking about how you responded to the failure. Failure stories are about sharing your learning and refraining our mental model of what failure means. Need some inspiration? Here are two great examples of how to Share Your Failure Story:

• Amy Climer, a creativity consultant shares the story of when she quit her full-time job and pursued a career as an artist:

• Kyle Elliot, a career coach shares the story of when he approached Starbucks about potential sponsorship opportunities. Check out his insights on how to move forward from a setback:

Reframing our view of failure is not something that will happen from reading one article, watching one video, or attending a seminar. Creating a shift of this magnitude is going to take time but we can start to make an impact by being mindful about how we talk about failure. We can start the process of changing the mental model by sharing our failure stories in a way that focuses on the learning. When the way we talk about failure changes the mental models we have about it will also begin to shift. Here are a few ways you can put failure stories into action and encourage others to share their stories:

• At your next team meeting share a story about a time when you failed at something. Remember to focus on how you responded, what you learned and how you moved forward.

• The next time you have to do a presentation, begin with a failure story. Perhaps it is a story about how you bombed your first presentation or a story that is related to your presentation topic.

• Incorporate failure stories into the performance review process. Ask each person to identify one example of what they learned and how they moved forward from a setback.

• Turn your failure story into a blog post, podcast, social media post or whatever medium you have for sharing your thoughts.

• At your next social gathering be it the dinner table or happy hour, instead of the usual, how is your week going type questions, ask what have you failed at recently?

Each one of us can play a role in shifting how we collectively view failure by sharing the stories of how we failed. The more we talk about and hear stories of failure, the more at ease we will be about putting our toe in the water, raising our hand, trying that new thing and taking the leap. Stop keeping failures hidden. Let’s bring them out into the light and see them for what they really are…opportunities for learning and growing.

What is your failure story? Are you ready to share? Comment below or elsewhere on social media…let me know so I can learn too. Use #shareyourfailurestory so I can find your story…and stay tuned for my own failure story blog post coming soon.


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