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The value in failing a little every day

4 min read


Colin Powell was recently asked if he feared failing. He responded that he failed a little bit each day. Not only did this respected leader make failure accessible (because now we know that he’s not perfect), but he went on to say that it’s not the failure that’s important, but what you do about it that will set you apart. We can learn from our small daily failures as much as from the big ones.

I can relate to that because it’s now 10 a.m. and I’ve failed to get done what I expected to by this time. Powell’s statement reminds me that, yes, I’ve failed a little, and no, it’s not the end of the world. He also reminds me to reflect on why I failed to hit my target as well as how I need to readjust for success.

This important learning requires daily thinking time, something most leaders tell me they don’t have. I’d like to challenge that — a small amount of time at the end of your day can have big benefits. Taking the time to learn from your daily failures (no matter how small) is important to avoid repeating them and in learning how to circumvent the big failures.

You only need 15 minutes: Lose the distractions, close your door or find a private space, and spend 15 minutes with a journal, a pen and your thoughts. I know a journal and pen might seem old-fashioned, but trust me. The act of writing will slow you down, encourage clarity in your thoughts and help you to remember your experiences after the journal is put away. The journal isn’t a diary, and you don’t have to be a good writer.

Use some questions to get started: It’s not unusual to sit down with a pen in hand and with your mind whirling, not knowing where to start. Use some simple questions to jump-start yourself to think about (and write down) your thoughts. Try these to begin with:

  • What failures did I experience today?
  • What did I learn from my failures?
  • What behavior changes do I need to make to become a better leader as a result of learning from today’s failures?

For some positive balance, how about also reflecting and journaling on your successes:

  • What successes did I experience today?
  • What did I learn from my successes?
  • What behaviors do I want to keep as a result of learning from today’s successes?

Bullet points are fine: You don’t have to write a treatise. Bullet-point answers to the questions are fast, easy and often enough to help you later recall the scenarios of failure and success. Over time, you may see some patterns in response to your questions, helping you assess strengths and weaknesses as well as prepare for bigger things as a leader. These patterns can also help you to create an action (or development) plan. Consider how you can capitalize on the behaviors that helped you in your successes and how you can minimize those that played a role in your failures.

Create a plan and get an accountability partner: Those patterns that contributed to your failures won’t go away without taking action. Create a plan and find someone to hold you accountable: a colleague, your manager, a coach. Have them help you to break down the actions you need to take into smaller chunks and create a plan from them. Ask your partner about which successes you can capitalize on. Include the behaviors you want to change, what behaviors you’d rather exhibit and the steps you’ll take to achieve them.

Stick with the plan: We’ve all developed new behavioral habits in our lives. It takes time, patience and repetition. Ask your accountability partner to be ruthless in assuring that you stick with your plan until the new habits become second nature.

We all fail a little every day. We can learn from those small failures as well as daily successes when we reflect, create a plan and stay accountable.