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What you can learn from failure


Editor’s note: At American Nurse Today, we believe every nurse can be a leader. Rose Sherman, founder of the Emerging RN Leader blog (www.emergingrnleader.com), contributes articles on a regular basis to help nurses achieve their leadership potential.

Rachel is an experienced critical care nurse who prides herself on her

 professional accomplishments and abilities. Recently, she took the CCRN exam to become certified in critical care. Despite taking a review course and spending hours studying, she fails the exam. She’s extremely upset, in part because she’d discussed the exam with coworkers and now dreads having to tell them she didn’t pass.

Most of us have had the experience of failing to achieve a goal, making a poor judgment call, or being overlooked for a coveted position. Sometimes our failures are public. More often, they’re private and we never discuss them with anyone. On the other hand, we celebrate our successes. Similarly, most journal articles focus on what’s working in organizations; few focus on initiatives that failed. You’ve probably heard the famous line from the movie Apollo 13: “Failure is not an
option.” I’ve seen it as a tagline in many e-mail signatures.

Although few professionals openly discuss their failures, failure is part of the professional experience. According to
author and resilience expert Martin Seligman, PhD, failure is an inevitable part of work. Along with dashed romances, work failure is one of life’s most common traumas. If you never fail, Seligman believes, you’re probably not taking risks that will lead to your professional growth or organizational innovation. Reflecting on failures and learning from them are essential.

Handling failure

We each respond to failure in different ways, depending on our life experiences. Amy Edmondson, a business expert on the topic of failure, notes that we’re programmed from an early age to think failure is bad. Conversely, we learn success has a reward attached to it, whereas failure comes with some type of punishment.

The emotional consequences of personal failure can be hard to overcome. Like Rachel, many professionals are perfectionists with high expectations for themselves. When they fail, their harsh inner critic may tell them they’re not smart enough. This can lead to negative self-talk and fear they’ll lose colleagues’ respect. For instance, because she failed the CCRN exam, Rachel may mentally discard all her positive contributions to her unit. Other people may take a different approach when they fail, blaming others rather than admitting their own role.

Systems failure

But not all failures are equal. Preventable failures, such as medication errors, are viewed negatively—but many organizations are moving to a culture that deemphasizes individual blame. In complex organizations and settings, such as busy emergency departments, systems failure is a perpetual risk. In these settings, root cause analysis is a good process for identifying and correcting systems failures.

Reflecting on failures

Individuals need to take professional risks to enhance their careers. But to do this, you need to reflect on your failures, analyze why they happened, and learn how to use them to help yourself and others. To overcome failure, assess the problem objectively before choosing a path to overcome it. (See Key questions to ask yourself by clicking the PDF icon above.)

Building resilience

How well we recover and grow from failure depends partly on our resiliency. Potentially, Rachel could go from being extremely sad about failing the exam to becoming depressed, to experiencing a paralyzing fear of retaking it. Or she could bounce back after a brief period of malaise with new determination to pass it.

From working with military veterans, Seligman found optimism is the key to resiliency in the face of failure—optimism that whatever the failure is, it’s temporary, local, and changeable. Too often, we let our minds make up a story about the failure and we tell ourselves this story over and over. But if you can control your thoughts about failure, you can control your attitude. Resilience means keeping positive thoughts; staying aware of your individual gifts, talents, and strengths; and encouraging yourself to keep moving forward.

Recovering and moving forward

Our failures can become some of our best teachers if we pay attention to and learn from them. They can give us the courage to confront our own and others’ imperfections and to accept failure as inevitable in
today’s complex work organizations. Most successful people acknowledge they’ve learned more from their failures than their successes. J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter book series, said in a Harvard commencement address, “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all.” Ms. Rowling knows about failure: She was a single, unemployed mother who received 12 rejections before a publisher accepted her first Harry Potter book.

Some people fear failure so much that they never put themselves in situations in which they could fail. But this sets a low ceiling on their prospects for professional success. Fear of failure is one of the strongest forces keeping people below their potential. In the bestseller The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich, author Timothy Ferriss advises readers to ask themselves what would happen if they chased their dreams and fell flat on their faces. He suggests the recovery time would be far shorter than we think.

Wise professionals recognize that if you don’t take risks, you lose out on opportunities. We hear so much these days about the virtues of being positive and successful. But we need to remember that our negative experiences—including those that lead to failure—also play an important role in finding success.

Selected references

Edmondson AC. Strategies for learning from failure. Harvard Bus Rev. 2011 Apr;89(4):48-55.

Ferriss T. The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich. (Exp upd ed.) New York, NY: Crown Archetype; 2009.

Fralic MA. Thoughts on failure: three questions to ask. Nurs Leader. 2011;9(5):5, 60.

Seligman MEP. Building resilience. Harvard Bus Rev. 2011 Apr;89(4):100-6.

Sherman R. Learning from failure. January 23, 2012. www.emergingrnleader.com/tag/learning-from-failure. Accessed May 1, 2012.

Rose O. Sherman is an associate professor of nursing and director of the Nursing Leadership Institute at the Christine E. Lynn College of Nursing at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, Florida.

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