How to Fail Fast and Be Resilient at Work

Tips and tricks to make yourself more resilient.

The word “resilience” usually denotes something like elasticity.

Think of a tree bending in a storm and moving with the wind before returning to an upright position. That’s one kind of resilience. A material that returns to its original shape after being stretched or bent is also resilient.

Resilience, in other words, is about adaptability and flexibility – taking on a new form to meet the demands of new situations without getting permanently bent out of shape.

In this article, we’ll be looking at techniques to help you “bounce back” and adjust to new situations in your life. Learning to be more resilient won’t just help you to survive life’s bumpy ride; it’ll help you flourish, above all in the workplace.

If you want to succeed, you should accept that you’re going to fail time and again.

In ancient Greece, merchants whose businesses failed were forced to sit in marketplaces with baskets over their heads. Seen by the crowds but unable to see themselves, they were ridiculed for their errors. Things weren’t much better in premodern Italy: in towns up and down the peninsula, failed businessmen were stripped naked and made to face the scorn of their jeering compatriots.

Failure, in other words, has historically been treated harshly. Contemporary societies aren’t quite as brutal, and yet our fear of failure lives on. But failure isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

The key message here is: If you want to succeed, you should accept that you’re going to fail time and again.

Whatever the industry, professionals and organizations benefit when they learn from their failures. This is because, contrary to conventional wisdom, failure doesn’t make you less intelligent or able. In fact, the most accomplished and talented individuals and institutions routinely experience failure. They recognize that, as the psychologist Denis Whitley puts it, failure isn’t an “undertaker” – it’s a teacher.

Take it from basketball star Michael Jordan, one of the most successful players in the history of the sport. Looking back, Jordan sees his career as a series of failures. He missed over 9,000 shots, 26 of which were potential game-winners. He failed time and again. “That,” he said, “is why I succeed.”

Then there’s JK Rowling, one of the world’s most respected authors. Before Harry Potter became the global sensation, it is today, her books were rejected by dozens of publishing houses. Or take Netflix. The on-demand video streaming service was first pitched to Blockbuster in 2000 for a fraction of its current value. Blockbuster turned it down.

These kinds of failures provide a valuable lesson on the importance of self-belief and determination. Just think of Thomas Edison, the inventor of the lightbulb. He famously regarded each failure as a step in the right direction. With all these failed attempts he had found 10,000 ways that wouldn’t work!

But even though failure is so important, not everyone will respond to it in an encouraging and supportive way. Some stakeholders, like bosses or clients, will inevitably be upset. So, it’s very important to develop a system that encourages risks and failures, but which also avoids a breakdown in relations. Call it fail fast.

“Fail fast” can teach both individuals and organizations to make the most of failure.

The concept of fail fast comes from systems design. There, it denotes a technology that immediately reports issues likely to cause serious problems further down the line. When this happens, operations are halted so that the flaw in the process can be addressed. The idea was later taken up by businesses to describe the way they stress-test products early on. This gets failure out of the way, and it can prevent years of wasted investment.

This is something we can also implement in our own day-to-day work.

The key message here is: “Fail fast” can teach both individuals and organizations to make the most of failure.

There’s only one surefire way to avoid failure: don’t try anything new – ever. But playing it safe is a recipe for stagnation. We thrive when we feel challenged and excited by what we’re doing. Conversely, we stop producing our best work when we get caught in a familiar routine.

So why do so many of us fall into the trap of familiarity? Well, once we’ve developed our expertise and become highly competent by mastering challenges, we suddenly become risk averse. Being an expert feels good, and we’re reluctant to leave that hard-won comfort zone. After all, when we embrace a new challenge, we must accept that we’re not experts in this new area. This in turn reintroduces the scariest prospect of all – failure.

This is where fail fast comes in. The idea is simple: the sooner we try something new, the lower the stakes will be if we fail. This makes it easier to get the dreaded experiment out of the way and gain valuable new insights. It also means we’re less likely to fail the next time around.

Implementing fail fast systems is increasingly important in today’s world. As Sunni Giles argues in The New Science of Radical Innovation, the twenty-first century work environment is characterized by four factors: volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity – or VUCA for short.

In this climate, failure is certain. The organizations best placed to thrive don’t just tolerate this reality; they embrace it. In practice, this means that leaders encourage experimentation and set moderate challenges. These challenges encourage creative solutions while keeping the stakes tolerably low.

But there is more to workplace resilience than failing fast. We also must understand ourselves better.

Your unconscious shapes your behavior and exploring your inner motivations can help you become more resilient.

It’s easy to assume that what we’re able to see is all there is to see. At work, for example, we might notice a manager ignoring a colleague’s contributions and inwardly condemn this disrespectful behavior. What we can’t see, though, are the unconscious drivers of this behavior. Maybe this manager is envious of the person proposing ideas. Or maybe he thinks that it’s his duty as a manager to have all the good ideas. Ultimately, it’s these unseen factors that explain how we act.

The key message here is: Your unconscious shapes your behavior and exploring your inner motivations can help you become more resilient.

Like icebergs, the greater part of who we are is below the surface. It is the hidden part of ourselves – the unconscious – that determines who we are. This idea goes back to the work of Sigmund Freud.

According to Freud, our unconscious is a kind of repository of repressed childhood memories. And it shapes the way we behave. Let’s say we felt unsafe, envious, neglected, or abandoned in our early years. These feelings are likely to play an important role in how we view and act in the world as adults.

Unconscious thoughts influence us in two ways. The first is called transference. Here, our response to individuals and events is shaped by past experiences. Say you find yourself blushing when the chair speaks to you at a board meeting. There’s a good chance that’s because his tone unconsciously reminded you of being humiliated by your teacher as a child.

Then there’s projection – attributing your own thoughts and feelings to someone else. This often happens when you feel those thoughts and feelings are wrong. You might feel hateful toward a colleague. This is an unacceptable thought, so you might make it palatable by deciding that they hate you. Essentially, you’ve projected your hatred onto the other person.

The best way to keep these kinds of unconscious thought patterns in check is to explore your inner motivations. Knowing who you are and why you respond to people and events in the way that you do will allow you to interact more productively and avoid unnecessary conflicts. This in turn will help you become more resilient.

To do this, get into the habit of reflecting on workplace encounters that left you feeling wounded. Jot down everything that hurt you and see if you can face the painful memory it brought back. Making unconscious thoughts conscious is the best way to break out of unhelpful behavioral patterns.

Sleep is the key to building physical resilience.

Imagine you were told about a product that allowed you to reset your body and brain to “healthy.” It could be used every day by anyone on the planet and didn’t cost a cent. Sound too good to be true? Well, here’s the good news: you already have this miracle cure! It’s called sleep.

The key message here is: Sleep is the key to building physical resilience.

There are thousands of scientific reports demonstrating the health benefits of getting a good night’s sleep. Unfortunately, this is something fewer and fewer of us are doing. The World Health Organization reports that a sleep-loss epidemic is sweeping through industrialized nations. This is a cognitive and emotional time bomb.

Have you ever worked through the night to meet a deadline and then continued working the next day? If you have, you’ll know that inadequate sleep wreaks havoc on our ability to concentrate, carry out complex tasks, and acquire new information.

Sleep loss also takes its toll on our resilience. Without the sustenance of sleep, we are both mentally and emotionally weaker. This makes us grumpy, irritable, and much likelier to lash out. Think of an infant crying its heart out. Their mother or father might explain that “they’re just tired.” As adults, we’re socially aware enough not to throw a tantrum in public. But we’re just as impacted by our lack of sleep as a bawling toddler.

This means it’s time to reclaim our full night’s sleep. But how? Well, take a leaf out of world-renowned neuroscientist Matthew Walker’s 2017 book, Why We Sleep. According to Walker, getting enough shut eye is all about adopting a few simple tricks.

If you’re getting less than seven hours of sleep a night, Walker argues, it’s time to start avoiding stimulants like caffeine and nicotine. These can take up to eight hours to work through your body, and they seriously undermine your ability to nod off.

Alcohol should also be avoided. While a nightcap might make you feel relaxed, it robs you of deep sleep – the most restorative and restful part of the sleep cycle. This is also true of heavy meals eaten too close to bedtime. And remember, humans are creatures of habit, so it’s a good idea to go to bed at the same time every day.

Resilience isn’t just about positivity – it’s also helpful to think about everything that could go wrong.

If you want to build your resilience, many argue, you need to embrace the power of positive thinking. This is a popular idea found in self-help books, therapies, and on social media. It says that if we’re positive enough, there’s nothing we can’t do, from losing weight to landing that dream job.

There’s nothing wrong with a can-do attitude, of course – the reason these books and ideas are popular is because they do help lots of folks. But positive thinking isn’t the only approach. Sometimes, dwelling on negatives can be just as helpful.

The key message here is: Resilience isn’t just about positivity – it’s also helpful to think about everything that could go wrong.

Granted, mulling over all the reasons you might fail doesn’t sound like a compelling strategy to build resilience. But here’s the thing: confronting the likelihood of falling short can be liberating.

This notion is at the heart of Stoicism, a philosophical creed that goes back to the ancient Greeks. This doctrine has two key components.

The first is death. Stoics, as followers of this school of thought are called, emphasize the briefness of life. This might sound depressing, but they believe this focus relieves us of a burden. They reason that once you concentrate your mind on the certainty of dying, it becomes easier to embrace life and not put off until tomorrow what you can do today.

This also applies metaphorically. Think of what “death” might mean in your work. What is the worst possible outcome? The loss of employment, your reputation, clients, or money? If you knew that these things would eventually happen, how would that affect your choices today?

Then there’s the lesson of the influential Greek philosopher Epictetus, born in 341 B.C.E. As Epictetus saw it, few things cause more misery than change and disruption. This is because we fear the unknown and assume the worst.

So, Epictetus argued that it’s best to only consider the changes that you’re presented with. If thinking through the worst possible outcomes is not really helping you plan for them but just making you anxious, change tack. Stop stressing about possibilities, gossip, or what could happen. Prepare for change once it becomes a reality.

Together, these lessons strike a balance – anticipate the worst and plan for it, but really focus only on what’s happening, not on “what ifs.”

Purpose makes us resilient and gets us through periods of hardship.

When we’re clear about why we’re doing what we’re doing, we are much more likely to be resilient. It is this sense of “why” that gets people through grueling seven-day weeks in the early stages of establishing their business or keeps them on course during a marathon. In other words, the conviction that our tasks are meaningful gives us the courage to push through adversity.

The key message here is: Purpose makes us resilient and gets us through periods of hardship.

Why do you go to work? This profound question isn’t about your need for food and shelter. What we’re talking about here is why you go to work on a higher level – are you emotionally invested in what you’re doing? If you are, you’ll be willing to go the extra mile that guarantees both professional success and personal fulfillment.

You can see how this works by imagining a primary school in a city that’s having economic problems. Due to government spending cuts, this school must make do with fewer teachers. So, classes get larger, which in turn leads to a spike in poor behavior among students. The remaining teachers are overworked, tired, and grumpy.

Not all these teachers are alike, however. Teacher “A,” for example, only became a teacher after her business failed. Facing huge debts, she needed a steady salary, and this school, which is conveniently located near her home, happened to offer an easily accessible training program. Teaching was a ready answer to her personal problems.

Teacher “B” is different. A third-generation educator, he is proud of his family’s history and role as teachers. As he sees it, his job is all about creating the next generation of thoughtful, compassionate citizens. That’s something he’s best placed to do as a primary school teacher. It’s at this age that vital learning patterns are established, which shape kids’ later schooling experience.

So which teacher is more resilient to the challenges of their work? Well, Teacher “B” will probably cope better with this period of hardship. This is because his individual purpose aligns with the purpose of the school. His professional work furthers his personal values.

Now, life usually isn’t as clear cut as this, but the point stands: purpose builds resilience. So how do you find your sense of why? Let’s find out!

Only you can define what kind of work is meaningful.

The Japanese have a special word for the sense of purpose that gets you out of bed in the morning: ikigai, meaning “a reason for being.” This is something you do not just for money but also because it matters. As the saying goes, “If you do something you love, you’ll never have to work another day in your life.” This is true enough, but first you must find your purpose.

The key message here is: Only you can define what kind of work is meaningful.

Committing to a working life of purpose takes courage. Doing what matters to you, after all, is deeply personal. It might lead you down a path that will surprise your family, friends, and peers. This can cause friction, but it’s worth doing all the same. We only get one chance at life. Doing what you care about is an opportunity that shouldn’t be passed up lightly.

The question, then, is how to find out what a working life of meaning and purpose would look like for you. To help you do that, let’s try out a couple of exercises.

As we’ve seen, your ikigai encompasses both your personal values and your professional abilities. To find work that allows you to combine these two things, you’ll need to ask yourself four questions.

First off, what do you love doing? Secondly, what are you good at? Thirdly, what does the world need? Lastly, what can you be paid for? Think of your answers as a Venn diagram; you’ll find your ikigai where all four circles overlap.

You can also try a more creative approach. Imagine you are a manager at a firm that’s hiring, and you walk through the door. Try to describe this new team member – yourself! What does your contribution to the company entail? Why does it matter? What are the top three points about your work that you’d emphasize? If this is still too vague, try condensing this description of why your work is important even further, into a snappy 140-character tweet.

Finally, here’s another approach: think about what’s working well for you right now and use that as a launching pad to think about your purpose. To do this, keep a journal for a week. Each night, right before bed, write down three good things about your day. Once you’ve jotted these down, think about why those things went well. Chances are, you already know what you find meaningful. This exercise will just help you bring that out into the open.

Final summary

The key message in this article:

Success, paradoxically, means embracing failure. From Thomas Edison to Michael Jordan, history’s high-flyers have allowed themselves to fail. Why is that? It’s simple: falling short is a great way of learning, and it builds resilience over time. Add psychological clarity, physical well being, some Stoic philosophy, and a clear sense of purpose into the equation, and you’ll be well-set to join them!

Actionable advice:

Re-frame negative situations.

We often look at the world in black and white terms: some things are clearly “good” while others are simply “bad.” But reality isn’t like this. Clouds, after all, often have silver linings. To help you notice this, try an exercise called “Turning the Obstacle Upside Down.”

The idea is to re-frame difficult situations as sources of insight and development. Say you’re helping a colleague with a task they’ve been struggling with. But they’re being short-tempered, uncooperative, and rude. Frustrating, right? Well, think about the virtues this situation is helping you develop – for example, greater patience, understanding, and empathy.

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