“Who’s ready to fail?!” Those words have likely never been spoken in any coach’s pre-game pep talk. In fact, we are taught from a very early age to strive for success, not failure. For some, there is nothing more important than winning. But “Winning isn’t everything” is more than just a catchphrase to console those who have lost. There are valuable lessons that can be learned from unsuccessful efforts. Even all-star baseball players are only successful three of out of every ten times that they step the plate, but they watch film of their outs later to avoid similar results in the future.
Scientists also recognize the power of failed attempts. Big adaptive challenges have no clear solution. How long have we been working to find a cure for cancer? We have made great progress, but we’re not there yet. And in leadership, the goal is long-term progress, not immediate success. To achieve this goal, we need to be willing to act experimentally (like a scientist) by trying, failing, learning, and then trying again.
So how can each of us act like a scientist?
• Begin with less risky experiments. Early small success gives us the confidence to try other experiments for which the outcome is not so certain.
• Test your hypothesis. Consider what you expect to happen and then see if your assumptions are correct.
• Be specific to hold yourself accountable. What will you do? When will you do it? Whom do you need to help you?
Pause and evaluate between experiments. Don’t move so quickly that you do not have time to consider what you have learned from either success or failure.
It is an understatement to say that we don’t read about many scientists in the Bible, and in fact, there are not many examples of other Biblical characters who learned from their mistakes and tried a new approach. One who did, however, is Paul. In Acts 17- 18, we read about Paul’s travels through what is now Greece. He spoke in many different cities, but his tactics were not always successful. The audience of philosophers in Athens “sneered” when they heard him speak about the resurrection of the dead, so he shifted his message by the time that he reached Corinth, testifying to the Jews that Jesus was the Christ. When even the Jews opposed him and became abusive, the Lord spoke to him in a vision and encouraged him by saying, “Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent.” So Paul stayed for a year and a half.
Rather than avoiding risk for fear of failure, let’s redefine success and celebrate discovery. Focus on what you learned, rather than on whether or not you solved your challenge. Act experimentally and try, try again.
-- Brent Yoder