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Our instinctive aversion to failure and fear of rejection is often what keeps us stuck.

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If you’ve ever blamed traffic for being late for work but judge others for being tardy, you might be suffering from a universal human struggle: the inability to admit your own mistakes.

Despite the celebratory Silicon Valley mantra of “fail fast, fail often” and the recent popularity of corporate “failure parties,” the stigma associated with making a mistake persists. After all, no one should be celebrating a heart surgeon or automobile plant manager who fails fast or often.

The lack of nuance in the prevalent rhetoric around the topic of failure is what prompted Harvard Business School professor Amy C. Edmondson to write a book on the subject.

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“No wonder we’re confused,” says Dr. Edmondson, who recently presented her new book, Right Kind of Wrong: The Science of Failing Well, at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.

“The reason I wrote this book was to address and sharpen the happy talk about failure – to limit the idea of praising failure to those [failures] that are actually productive,” she says.

“The right kind of failure, the kind we want to have more of rather than less, is as small as possible, occurs in new territory in pursuit of a goal, and is informed by prior knowledge. It’s more realistically applicable to specific contexts like research and development.”

Dr. Edmondson categorizes failures into three types: basic, complex and intelligent. Basic and complex failures are driven by human error. They may be caused by not paying attention or not using available knowledge, and sometimes they’re caused by plain bad luck.

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These kinds of failures can sometimes lead to lucrative business opportunities. Dr. Edmondson cites the example of a restaurant cook in the late 1800s in Guangdong, China, who left a pot of oysters to simmer on the stove too long. This accident resulted in the popular condiment known today as oyster sauce, now sold in jars under the billion-dollar Lee Kum Kee brand.

However, in Dr. Edmondson’s view, the most valuable failures are intelligent failures, which are the results of thoughtful attempts at discovery. An example of this is Thomas Edison’s attempts to develop a commercially viable light bulb, which famously took him 1,000 tries.

When framed the right way, Dr. Edmondson says failure can be viewed as a gift, offering clarity about areas needing improvement and insights into our true passions. It’s also a necessary part of progress, as our instinctive aversion to failure and fear of rejection is often what keeps us stuck.

Know when to switch gears

“We often swing between extremes when approaching failure – either dodging it at all costs or diving in headfirst. But the real art lies in finding that middle ground where failing well happens,” says Tanya Geisler, a Toronto-based leadership coach.

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Ms. Geisler stresses the importance of dialling down the desire for perfection, which she sees as a coping mechanism many employ to counter imposter syndrome (particularly potent in women). The personal development industry is a $44-billion industry, she notes, “devoted entirely to making us feel broken and wrong, so we’ll buy into the next pricey confidence hack to assuage our insecurities.”

That’s why she takes a different approach with her clients, she says. “I celebrate both the desire for excellence and see mess-ups as chances to grow, countering that pesky imposter feeling.”

Knowing when to pivot is part of failing well too, she says.

“Remember Nokia? They missed the smartphone revolution, clinging too long to their traditional phone designs. Yet, they eventually reshaped themselves, focusing on telecommunications infrastructure and digital health technology. Their struggle teaches us that changing direction is sometimes the smartest move,” says Ms. Geisler.

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“It’s about reading the signs and learning from your experiences, knowing when to persist and when to switch gears for growth. And that’s going to look different for each person and team.”

Several years ago, a team of U.S.-based psychologists and neuroscientists found the optimal failure rate to be 15.87 per cent; in other words, to be successful you need to fail around once every five or six attempts. While this may vary based on the day, the task and even the personality, what makes this metric valuable is it serves as an objective benchmark for quantifying success.

Lose the fixed mindset

In the workplace, failing can be terrifying, eroding workers’ confidence and their willingness to try again. That’s why managers’ response to failure is so important, says Sonia K. Kang, a professor of organizational behaviour and HR management at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.

“In both workplace situations and personal relationships, if someone keeps failing without any sign of improvement, it may be that they’re not set up for success,” she says. “Maybe they don’t understand the assignment or what you need from them. This is where feedback and communication are key.”

The term failure is often too extreme, notes Dr. Kang, as people will usually get a second (or third or fourth) chance to try again.

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“Most of what we’re classifying now as failures could be reframed as tries or attempts,” she says. “If you try something [and] learn from that attempt, in trying again, you’re already ‘failing’ well.”

Those with a fixed mindset tend to be harsher in their judgments of themselves and others, says Dr. Kang. They tend to attribute failure to individual characteristics such as lack of skill, discouraging further attempts. For a more constructive perspective, she advocates cultivating a growth mindset instead.

“When we’re not expecting immediate success, we’re more patient and willing to work with others to help them improve.”

Dr. Kang says the first step to failing well is to plan for it. “Think about contingencies, how and when you might give up one approach to try something else, and what other options you have to meet your objective if you don’t seem to be getting there.”

Even for the most successful individuals, failure is an unavoidable part of life, says Dr. Edmondson. “They take smart risks, relentlessly pursue growth and strengthen their ‘failure muscles.’

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“If we want to keep getting better at the activities and deepen the relationships we value most, we must be willing to confront and learn from our mistakes.”

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