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micro skill

By preparing yourself to fail you can set yourself up for success.

This is part of a series looking at micro skills – changes that employees can make to improve their health and life at work and at home, and employers can make to improve the workplace. The Globe and Mail and Morneau Shepell have created the Employee Recommended Workplace Award to honour companies that put the health and well-being of their employees first. Read about the 2017 winners of the award at

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Bill Howatt will be speaking about mental health at The Globe's Solving Workplace Challenges summit on March 20 in Toronto. Click here to find out more or to register for the event.

How do you prepare for failure each day?

Many people aren't sure how to answer this question, because it just doesn't make any sense to them. Most are more comfortable answering how they prepare for success each day. Unfortunately, many people do not. They default to a reactive approach to try to keep up with daily demands.

This micro skill supports the value of anticipating failure. This helps in setting realistic expectations and building contingency plans. Now, for the skeptic reader, be clear that wanting failure and planning for it are different. No one is perfect. We all have failed and suffered setbacks, so it only makes sense to be mentally prepared for failure, rather than being surprised and disappointed when failure happens, to the point of never wanting to try again.

One experience most can relate to is learning how to ride a bike. No one wants to fall off, but we plan for it, by leveraging safety equipment, having someone run beside us to catch us before we fall, or learning on grass to provide a soft landing. With all this preparation, most bike learners fall and get a few bumps and bruises as a part of the learning process, but don't get severely injured. Before starting, most know there is a real risk of getting hurt in some way, so why doesn't it deter us? Because learning to ride a bike provides a reward, it's fun and gives us freedom and independence. And we can plan for that potential failure, and that limits the risk.


Living life to its fullest means that we have had failure. We read of people's successes but we don't often know of their failures. Winston Churchill once said, "Success is not final, failure is not fatal, it is the courage to continue that counts." Whether it's learning to ride a bike, reading, parenting, relationships, work or sports, whenever we have a difference between what we want to happen and our reality, we can view it as failure.

When we start anything that we care about, there's a chance that we'll fail. Accepting failure as an option provides an opportunity to prepare for success as well. Preparing for failure begins with self-awareness. When we're pragmatic and open with each failure there's an opportunity for learning.


When we fail, we have a choice as to how we respond. Though failure can feel like a setback, it's not the failure that will define us; it's what we do afterward. Ask any top sales professional how many 'nos' they heard before they got to a 'yes.' Most will tell you that the faster they fail, the faster they will be successful. Thomas Edison said it well: "I have not failed. I just found 10,000 ways that won't work."

We can only try to do our best each day, and with our best we may fail. Those who prepare for failure are more likely to adopt Edison's thinking and make the preloaded decision that failure is information that we can learn from, not the end result. Choosing to not try again and give up, rather than making two or three more tries before you succeed, can be the difference between happiness and settling for less than you really want in life.


If I fail today, what will I do? Notice the question is not specific; it's general.

For example, you interview for a new job you really want and don't get it. What you do next is binary: you will or will not try again. Both have consequences.

Preparing for failure can be specific. The follow-up to learn from not getting a job may be a post-interview discussion on whether there was anything you could have done differently, any coaching, as well as self-reflection as to what you need to change for the next time.

Our general mental health is influenced by how we perceive we're doing with respect to managing both success and failure. Planning for failure doesn't mean we want it or make it happen. It means we're willing to take risks – and with risk comes the potential to fail. As well, with each failure are opportunities for achieving life goals and fulfilling personal needs.

Though failure can hurt, when powerful emotions become manageable and we're open to learn and be honest with ourselves, there's opportunity for post-failure growth. When we can reframe failure and see it as more than a disappointment, we position ourselves to the opportunity to learn and grow from failure. The only way we can win in the game of life is to have played.

Bill Howatt is the chief research and development officer of work force productivity with Morneau Shepell in Toronto.

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