Failing to Succeed

by Joanie Connell

successWhat does it take to succeed? Isn’t that the burning question? Of course, it depends on what your definition of success is to begin with. Is it money, fame, power, happiness, self actualization? The first step in success is to know yourself—what is important to you, what do you value, what are you good at, what are you not so good at? Failing that, you will never truly succeed.

I was an electrical engineer before I became a psychologist. I went into engineering for all the wrong reasons. They seemed like the right reasons at the time, because I was young and inexperienced, and I was looking for a short-term solution. I wanted to make money, and my parents made it abundantly clear that I needed to be able to support myself upon completing college.

I spent many a night flipping through the book of college majors, looking longingly at music, French, and sociology, but questioning what kind of money I would make if I went down one of those paths. Given that I was good at math and computers, I chose the one major I could find where I could start out as a professional with only an undergraduate degree: electrical engineering.

I did succeed at making money, but I was not happy. I had to go back and do a lot of soul searching. I bought the book “What Color is your Parachute?” and diligently worked through all of the exercises. I explored and prioritized what was important to me. I solicited feedback from friends and family on what they thought I was good at and what would be a good fit for me. I interviewed many professionals in a variety of jobs to see if these jobs would be a good fit for me. Through this process, I decided to become a communications consultant. I learned that I needed to go back and get a Ph.D. to be successful at that. I learned that I liked to solve problems (like an engineer) but they needed to be people problems. I learned that I did have to make enough money to support myself, but not as much as an engineer. I learned that I needed to make a positive impact on the world (even in a small way) to be successful in life. That’s what is important to me.

A few years back, during a coaching session, an executive told me that I had found my calling. It was the best compliment I have ever received at work. I realized then and there that my strength and passion are to help people reach their potential in life. I’ve gone through countless failures to get to that point, and it hasn’t been easy.

Like with exercising and diets, people want to learn the shortcut to failuresuccess. The New York Times Bestsellers list is full of books on how to be a successful leader. The problem is: there is no formula for success. It takes discipline and hard work, and every successful person will tell you that they have failed.

Even the Harvard Business Review has dedicated a special issue to failure. Every article talks about major business failures. The key message, however, is to learn from your failures.

Proctor & Gamble’s former CEO, Alan Lafley, says that, in his experience, “we learn more from failure than we do from success.” He says that 80% of new product innovation fails in the industry of household products. It wasn’t until he had P&G go back and systematically study their failures over the past 3 decades and define what success meant, that they understood why. Needless to say, they’ve improved their success rate ever since.

People are the same way. Instead of forgetting the past, we need to learn from it to do better in the future. We also need to take risks to succeed. If we wrap ourselves up in a security blanket, we will close ourselves off from opportunities to grow.

In the end, failing is important to succeed.