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How Embracing Failure Helps You Be More Innovative

By December 27, 2018January 7th, 2019Innovation
A young woman paints a picture of some flowers

Ah, the New Year…champagne, parties, countdowns, and the resolve to do things differently this year. The three most common resolutions are to eat healthier, exercise more, and save more money.

Did you know that 80 percent of New Year’s resolutions fail? Surprised? Me neither.

Three years in a row I bought new running shoes and fully believed it when I told myself I would get up earlier than necessary on frigid January mornings and run. On purpose. Last year, I came to the realization that I won’t run on purpose, and possibly won’t run even if my life depends on it.

I. Hate. Running.

And yet, on New Year’s Eve, banging pots and pans, shouting and kissing at midnight, promises and possibilities float along the curls of our frosty breath, and we feel like this time it really will be different.

Make Embracing Failure One of Your New Year’s Resolutions

Then by February, the dark, cold nights don’t feel magical, the possibilities don’t seem quite as endless, and that heart-shaped box of chocolates beckons and breaks our willpower. We’ve all been there, right?

I don’t mean to paint a bleak picture, and I don’t want to take away the sparkle of the New Year. In fact, I love the sparkle, the promise, the feeling of a clean slate and a whole new me. I’m not even suggesting that we don’t “resolve” this year, because we should all have goals. I’m suggesting we resolve differently — and that this year, we resolve to fail.

Stay with me. I’ve failed plenty of times, as evidenced by the sneakers in my closet. But those times I didn’t plan to fail, so when I did, I started some negative self-talk that set me up for future running failures.

Planning to fail, taking on something that I know I won’t be good at and will likely have to do again? That’s a whole different ballgame. Because being comfortable with failure is a key part of innovation and will change your mindset — and maybe your life.

Take More Risks by Celebrating Failure

We learn early in life that failure isn’t good. There are right answers, and we are prized for coming up with these right answers. Since we don’t celebrate failure, it makes it harder for us to take risks because we don’t know the outcome, and we don’t want to be wrong. Yet, in order to innovate, we have to be willing to take risks.

We’ve all heard the Edison quote about lightbulbs: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Maybe it sounds clichéd, but think about that: If we’re not failing, it means we’re not taking risks, and if we’re not taking risks, we can’t discover our next “lightbulb.” So how can we set out to fail in the best ways?

Three ways to get comfortable with failure

  1. Make failure fun. You can practice an innovation technique we call “worst idea ever” by trying to come up with the most terrible idea you can. When the goal is for something to be bad, failure is celebrated.

    Want to try painting but are pretty sure you stink? Do a gallery of painting attempts on your fridge. Just google “Pinterest fails” to see all the craft projects people have attempted and failed at, or watch the show Nailed It, where people try to replicate fancy foods and the outcomes are hilarious. Failure can be really fun — if you let it.‌
  2. Test ideas in a safe space. For your first failure, start with something that won’t have a significant impact when it goes “wrong.” I talk about Franz Reichelt, a French tailor who died when he jumped off the Eiffel Tower to test his invention of a wearable parachute. While I’m usually a fan of go-big-or-go-home, that’s too big.

    The ideas from number one are a great start, or you can test an idea at work that’s low risk. Our innovation team once piloted a newsletter in the bathroom stalls to see if it was a better way to communicate. It wasn’t. It turns out what works in college dorms doesn’t always fly in the corporate world, but we only tried the idea on one floor for two weeks, and then scrapped the idea with no harm.‌
  3. Find a failure buddy. I want to get back into yoga, but I am feeling very un-stretchy since it’s been a while. I’ve asked a friend to go to a new studio with me, since I know she’ll hold me to going. That means that after I stink at the first class, she’ll ask me when we’re going back, and I won’t want to disappoint her, so I will.

    On the website, you commit to your goals through a contract with a friend — oh, and you set up a donation to your anti-charity (think, the last place you’d want to give money), and if you don’t meet your goal, then your friend clicks the button to donate your money. In this case, make your goal to do something you might not be good at, and celebrate that you tried.

Getting comfortable with failure means cultivating a growth mindset, which is a topic I’ll be blogging about soon. It means you’ll stick to more new endeavors, and it means you may just live a happier, more content life — this year and all those following.

This blog was originally published on LinkedIn


Michelle Histand

As Director of Innovation at Independence Blue Cross, Michelle uses design to solve sticky problems in health care and beyond. She loves taking a mess and making sense of it while giving people new tools and frameworks to get creative. She has been with IBX for over 15 years and previously worked with LA Weight Loss and Nordstrom, where she gained a wealth of customer experience insight. Michelle has her bachelor’s degree in Liberal Arts and her master’s in Writing Studies from St. Joseph’s University. She also teaches topics on innovation and entrepreneurship at Temple University. When she’s not drawing flip charts and ideating, Michelle spends her time in South Philadelphia with her husband and three amazing boys, who do their best to exhaust her tireless energy.