Why we shouldn’t fear failure

“Try again. Fail again. Fail better”Samuel Beckett

Last week, defending champion Emma Raducanu, bowed out of the US Open after a first-round defeat to an opponent ranked 40th in the world. Making more than 30 unforced errors her performance was a far cry from last year’s “Fairy Tale in New York” that had seen her rise from qualifier to grand slam winner in one magical fortnight. 

Somewhat predictably, the pundits have had a field day, offering little perspective and even less practical advice to a player not yet 20 years old. She has been distracted by fame they say, had too many coaches, been poorly managed and trained the wrong way… all of which may well have some truth.  

But I was struck by Raducanu’s more sanguine assessment of her situation. The defeat was an opportunity to reset, she claimed — a chance to climb back up the rankings, but without the weight of expectations on her back. Implied in her response was the maturity to recognize that it wasn’t realistic to maintain the trajectory of last year’s success.  

I sensed also that, despite her (and our) obvious disappointments, she’d come to understand that failure has much to teach us. Ask any creative artist, and they’ll tell you that they learn more from their mistakes than they do their exhibition pieces. The same principle applies to politicians, economists, entrepreneurs… and for us all in our roles as parents, friends, volunteers —or, in my case, attempts to be the best club tennis player I can be!

This reminds me that in our careers as well as our everyday lives, success, and its counterpart failure, is usually more relative than the flawless expectations we project on our sporting heroes. There’s a world of difference between missing a challenging target and destroying millions of dollars of shareholder value; just as there is between falling short of straight A grades and flunking all your exams. The first response to perceived failure should be to put it into perspective and consider what’s been achieved along the way.

This is why we should remember that despite her recent dip in form, Raducanu remains one of only four teenagers in the World’s top 100, in addition to having beaten tennis hero Serena Williams only weeks before her US Open exit. Her story has inspired thousands of young girls to pick up a racket and unlike many sporting prodigies, she has remained mentally strong under pressures that would buckle most of us. How many of us would give our eye teeth for one-tenth of her talent and prospects?   

It’s folly to chase straight-line success in any field of endeavor.  And it’s equally unwise to remove the possibility of setbacks. If, as an investor, you want maximum certainty then buy government bonds, but in doing so, understand that your returns will be smaller and the projections somewhat unexciting. Alternatively, you could spread your capital across a balanced portfolio, accepting that there’ll be peaks and troughs in the pursuit of growth over time. So too with our careers (and particularly those aspiring to be leaders) where the smart money is not on following a risk-free path. 

In choosing this route, we can also be more of ourselves, making the most of our skills while building our experience. And in line with Raducanu’s comments, we should try to do so without the weight of unrealistic expectations on our backs. Working and living with passion and commitment demands that we face some jeopardy. How diminished our careers would be if they were shaped by timidity, and how sad a life that’s constantly looking over its shoulders. Much better to make decisions we believe in, having faith in our abilities while recognizing that not every choice will work out as we wish.

The helpful reality is that leadership errors seldom expose our flaws as publically as a show court at Flushing Meadows. This doesn’t mean that mistakes don’t matter, or that we shouldn’t care about their consequences. Indeed, it’s the concern to get it right next time that drives us to come back stronger —meaning that failure is far from fatal to our future. In responding, there’s also no shortage of advice on how to build back from our blunders, of working the problem, analyzing our tactics, or the strengths of our team. Frankly, there are whole industries of professionals to help us make better choices.

But I’d suggest all this is peripheral and comes only after the fact. The number one lesson we should take from failure is far from being something to fear, it’s part of a healthy and fulfilling life. And in so being, is essential to our becoming better people, better leaders, or indeed better tennis players.

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