Jenna Wortham is a New York Times staff writer with a talent for insight, so much so that Beyoncé once sent her a hand-written note for a piece she wrote that said, “thank you for understanding my heart”. Damn.
Speaking on Man Repeller’s new podcast The Call, something that most struck me about Wortham and her wisdom is her attitude towards failure. For her, life is about learning what you don’t want to do, and there is no failure or bad decisions, just data. This is a pretty liberating philosophy, particularly given the narrow definitions of what female success and failure look like that still linger in society.
According to Wortham the key to success is to get out there, without fear of failure or judgement, because that is how we gather the information we need to grow into astonishing leaders. Now that is a philosophy I can get on board with.
Ditching blame culture
It’s a way of thinking that’s backed up by the Harvard Business Review. According to HBR, businesses leaders don’t learn sufficiently from failure because there is still a counterproductive stigma around it. When the publication asked executives to think about the proportion of failures in their organisations that were truly blameworthy (e.g. due to deliberate deviance or inattention) these were usually in single digit percentages, but when they thought about the proportion that were actually blamed, this was much higher, up to 90%. Failure and fault are still virtually inseparable in society, and we’d be more successful if we did away with blame culture and focussed more on learning lessons.
Teaching ourselves how to fail
This probably starts at school. Dominic Randolph, the unorthodox head teacher at Riverdale, one of the most prestigious private schools in New York City, worries that bright students are not being taught enough about how to deal with failure: “People who get 800s on their SAT’s … get feedback that everything they’re doing is great. And I think as a result, we are actually setting them up for long-term failure. When that person suddenly has to face up to a difficult moment, then I think they’re screwed, to be honest. I don’t think they’ve grown the capacities to be able to handle that.”
“We should learn to wear failure as a badge of honour.”
Seek out failure to find success
It seems then, perversely, that seeking out failure, seeking it out early and often, could be the key to exceptional success. It’s a theory that Lithub writer Kim Liao made a pledge to test. As an author, she aims for 100 rejections from literary journals a year, because with all those rejections, some acceptances are likely to follow. Her results have surpassed her expectations: “Last year, I got rejected 43 times, but I also got five acceptances … If I had gone into last year shooting for five acceptances, it would have felt way too ambitious. I would have approached submitting timidly, or not taken chances on big name journals or competitive fellowships”.
Jump, and the net will appear
Real estate giant Barbara Cocoran is also a big believer in the power of failure to bring about success. She began to see failure as a lucky talisman, because all of her biggest successes came off the back of failures. In the ‘90s she wasted thousands of dollars making video tapes of house viewings so buyers wouldn’t need to travel to view a home. This totally failed, as nobody wanted to buy the tapes. Luckily for Cocoran, this catastrophe happened when the internet was in its early stages and when she uploaded the videos online, sales started pouring in. She sold her real estate business in 2006 for $66m.
“Seeking out failure, seeking it out early and often, could be the key to exceptional success.”
Failure as a badge of honour
Figuring out what we want to do with our lives is like working in the Research and Development department of a disruptive business. In both situations experimenting is necessary because the answers aren’t knowable in advance. It is therefore important to fail and fail often. As strong and powerful women, we should learn to wear failure as a badge of honour, and see it as a step forward in the path towards success.
How do you deal with failure and setbacks? Share your insights and keys to success in the comments below and continue the conversation with me over in the Iris Lillian Squad!
Hannah is a UK based journalist who writes about lifestyle, travel, culture and careers. How to be a woman in the 21st century and other lady life hacks are also among her fave topics. Tweet her @Hannah_Mays
Key to success