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Advice & News

September 3, 2019

A New Generation of Failures: Let’s Show Them How It’s Done


Sergey Nivens/Shutterstock
"Failing forward" is a relatively new and popular term that we use in mainstream, motivational speaking circles. It is a phrase that some struggle to understand and more have an even harder time living out. I spend a good deal of time conversing with millennials in both individual and audience settings. In doing so, I have learned that there's a heightened fear of professional failure within this age demographic. This fear extends beyond failing on the job to failing in an entrepreneurial venture, career change, job search, and professional and personal relationships. There is a part of me that understands this fear. Millennials are a generation that for the most part has been affirmed, supported, rewarded for winning, and applauded when they lose. Societally, we've cushioned their falls, boosted their confidence, and told them they can do anything they set their mind toward doing. The problem is that we did this without telling them that everything they set their mind toward might not be something that they are skilled in, equipped for, or called to do.

Millennials, like the rest of us, have had to figure out through post-degree lived experiences that just because you want something in life and are willing to work hard for it, it doesn't mean that you will or should receive it. In these instances, they have learned what other generations before them had to figure out too -- that life is neither fair nor just: it is simply life. There are problems associated with getting to the point of acceptance that you may not excel at everything in this paradigm of life. Usher in inevitable failure and it adds to it the complexity of learning you can even fail at something you are good at doing. The frustration and complexities of failure are compounded when someone gets on a stage or grabs a microphone or soapbox and tells you that failing is fine, as long as you "fail forward." What does this mean exactly, particularly for the millennial workforce?

From what I have learned about millennials, they are a resilient lot; therefore, I hypothesize that their definition of failing forward will be exactly what they decide to make it. I am learning that the best way to support millennials in the workplace is to give them the space to figure the job out, the grace to make mistakes, and the courage to face the fact of fear. It's true that we often avoid this facing of fear and the ability to muster up the courage to fail. Life goes on to teach us that while failure is inevitable, forward is optional.

Here's what I have learned when walking through the proverbial valley of the shadow of professional death; the greatest evil that there is to fear, is self-doubt. Failing at a task, startup, job, or relationship does not make you or me a failure. What it does make us are individuals who perhaps didn't prepare enough, execute well, communicate clearly, invest enough, or any other of the myriad of reasons we fail at a particular task. Sometimes, it is not us at all, but external forces like downsizing, organizational politics, or falling prey to psychologically or emotionally unstable supervisors. Failing at something and being a failure are two separate things. If we are not careful, self-doubt will creep in at these vulnerable moments and we become our own judge, jury, and executioner. Using the imagery of valley walking and shadows of death, it's important to know that shadows are a reflection of an image when light shines upon it in darkness. Failures hidden in darkness are difficult enough to accept but public failures be tantamount to full-blown disgrace. The more light that is cast upon what you would try to hide, the worse the failure feels. In these instances, there's no fixing the situation; there's only living through the situation and doing as much damage control as possible while practicing self-care. I once had a mentor say, "the only way out of it, is through it; so keep moving FORWARD".

Not all failures are tragic or public, but for those that are, it can be pretty painful. When one is in the process of failing, the first inclination is to assign blame. Once things have settled, failure may be looked at more objectively, especially when one can stop and consider where the blame lies. The question then becomes whether we were the cause, whether external factors were at play, and ultimately, what lessons we can learn from the experience? This is the forward part of failure. Take it from someone (me) who failed when it wasn't her fault, failed when it was her fault, and failed when who was at fault was really of no consequence. The point of the matter is to avoid getting stuck on blame, pain, and shame.

Finally, it's important that you know that you don't have to suffer alone. It is in these challenging moments that having a mentor is key to getting back up. I have been lucky to have some great mentors throughout my life. The words of one early-career mentor stand out, particularly the way that she would find me at a dark moment of post-failure gloom and say to me, "remember my dear, the best revenge is success, so go re-position yourself for the next win". She was always right; the re-positioning that I sought was always forward-facing, for there is no point in reliving the past. Take the loss, learn the lesson, and be on your way to life's next adventure. Go on and show us how it's done, forwardly.