In 2011, the Harvard Business Review devoted an entire issue to failure – yet, in Canada's risk-averse business climate, the belly-flop is still something people believe should be avoided at all costs. So we put this question to four Canadians who have thrived in different fields: ‘How can we learn from our failures in order to ensure future success?'
Cash in your chips, take a left turn and hit the beach
Author Ken McGoogan has published several books about one of the most dramatic failures in Canadian history: Sir John Franklin's doomed 1845 search for the Arctic Northwest Passage. In October, HarperCollins Canada will publish McGoogan's latest book, 50 Canadians Who Changed the World.
“In researching my new book, I came across all kinds of creative ways to respond to failure. The revelations included:
1. The sooner you cut your losses, the better: In 1967, in the middle of a poker game in Detroit, Joni Mitchell realized that her marriage had become a farce. She jumped up from the poker table, collected a few things from home, and set out that night for New York City ... and international celebrity.
2. Instead of beating your head against a wall, look for another door: In the 1980s, activist Maude Barlow lost a hard-fought battle to represent the Liberal Party in Ottawa Centre. After licking her wounds, she took a radical turn, deciding to do her fighting from outside the political system – and so became a world leader in the struggle to confront the looming global water crisis.
3. When all else fails, go lie on a beach: In 1983, Guy Laliberté was a busker, living hand-to-mouth while performing in a money-losing street festival. He took a beach holiday in Hawaii, and while watching the sun go down, conceived of mounting a circus of the sun. He got a government grant to act on his vision. His Cirque du Soleil not only recreated the idea of the circus, but turned Mr. Laliberté into Canada's youngest billionaire.”
Don't think of it as failing – think of it as building your cred
Pastry chef Anna Olson is the host of Food Network Canada's Bake with Anna Olson. Her three TV series have aired in 40 countries, and she has written seven cookbooks. Last year, she launched the Olson Recipe Maker app with her chef husband, Michael.
“It may seem paradoxical, but I would be a failure without my failures. I've based my career on learning from each and every mistake I make in the kitchen: With each mistake comes a lesson learned, and if I cannot tell what happened to cause the kitchen disaster, it forces me to research why, and then repair the situation.
“I heard a fellow baker once say that you have to make a mess of French macarons to figure out how to make them work – and, in fact, macarons have proven themselves to be my greatest failure that's led to success. It simply takes repetition and practice to learn that you've ground the almonds and icing sugar fine enough, and to gauge when the meringue is at the right peak, and that they've sat just long enough to get that perfect satin finish once baked. My first attempt resulted in a baking tray of one giant, flat macaron baked from a soupy mixture. I had overwhipped the egg whites and then let the mixture sit too long, so the meringue completely collapsed and turned into a puddle in the oven. It took many tries and recipe tweaking before I could come up with a consistent (and attractive) macaron. There's a reason that culinary schools wait until your final year to teach this technique!
“In my early years as an apprentice and novice chef, I would take those failures as blows to the ego, but with experience comes expertise and the further wisdom that without these failures, I wouldn't have the means to articulate to readers and viewers how to prevent or fix the same mistake.
“Ultimately, I would say that the greatest benefit to embracing a failure is to understand that the lesson learned grows your expertise and therein your credibility. I could have built a tool shed out of all the bricks of gluten-free banana bread I've made. But each brick was a lesson in how to replace wheat flour with other ingredients and proportions. Now I have a nicely developed repertoire of gluten-free recipes based on this failure-based knowledge – and, because I hate wasting ingredients, I also have quite an inventory of banana bread brick crumbs in the freezer.”
Write a checklist of do's and don'ts
Linebacker Jason Pottinger just began his fifth season with the Toronto Argonauts. The two-time Grey Cup winner is also an MBA student at York University's Schulich School of Business, where he's focusing on international business and marketing.
“Failure is a harsh word. Maybe too harsh, because failure can help you do better the next time. I often look back on my first start as a linebacker, in 2007 with the B.C. Lions. We played the Ticats, and my good friend Jesse Lumsden, whom I played with at McMaster [University], was their running back. Jesse had an amazing game – largely due to my own plays. I had a horrible game. I played very poorly. At the time, I considered it a failure: I finally got my chance to show my stuff on defence to the coaches and fans, and I blew it.
“But it made me take a look at myself as a professional athlete, and I realized I wasn't doing the things I needed to do to succeed. I didn't know my plays as well as I should have, so I was thinking too much on the field. I wasn't going over the mental part of my game.
“I look back on that first start all the time; it's like I've built up a history of failures, which become a checklist for future successes. I prepare for football games so much more differently now than seven years ago. Studying for a game for me is more important than being physically prepared. In total, I spend a good 15-20 hours preparing for a game now, not including practice. Each game is recorded from the end-zone view and the side-field view, and I spend extra hours watching those films – studying my upcoming opponents, envisioning myself on the field during those plays, just looking for little cues from the quarterback that give away whether it's going to be a run or a pass. I go over my own plays in the morning and again at night. It's a very mentally intense game. I've come a long way from that first start. I know my stuff.
“I've taken that lesson from my first start with me into the classroom. I bombed a presentation early in my MBA studies and I took the same approach, asking, ‘What did I do wrong, and how can I do better?' So, again, I've got that checklist of what to do based on that past failure. Or what not to do, which in my case is drinking too much coffee. Maybe that works for some people, but too much coffee and preparing for a presentation doesn't mix well.”
Bulk up your failure muscle
After Canadian musician Jason Beck was dropped by a major record label in the mid-1990s, he moved to Europe and reinvented himself. As Chilly Gonzales, he's since found international fame and acclaim for his music, as well as for working with artists such as Feist and Peaches. Gonzales' latest collaboration is with Drake on Nothing Was the Same, the hip-hop star's new album, which comes out Sept. 17.
“Once you accept failure as the best teacher, you will be happy to think like a student. Everyone I know dreams of a slow-building career, and the few who peaked early are in the toughest situation, because they didn't develop the failure muscle. I'm speaking of failures of strategy and communication here, because artistic failure is much harder to quantify. This failure muscle lets you tweak what you're doing as you go, and make tactical adjustments in real time. The music business, in particular, has been enabled greatly by the almost instant feedback pouring in from social media and the Internet. Also, any musicians who release on their own labels have the luxury of owning their good and bad ideas after the fact, unlike major-label acts who always have the recourse of blaming the incompetent record company douchebags.”
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