Failure is Nothing to Fear

(From the project Dialogues with Julian Moody: On Life, Business, Sustainability, and Other Things by Julian Moody and Brandy Walker)

BW: In our culture, there is a tremendous emphasis on success and failure has a stigma to it. People, in general, dread and fear failure. You’re someone who has experienced a lot of failure. Is it something to fear?

JM: In my mind, no. In the minds of millions of other people, yes. Many people, when they do something that doesn’t work out, they feel that they’re a total failure. And it is underlined with great fear. They believe that they’re no good, they don’t have what it takes, that sort of thing. People connect it with their self-worth.

BW: Many people, myself included, beat themselves up when they fail at something. You’re a very rare person in that you never beat yourself up when you experienced failure. Why is that?

JM: I think I have a nature where I don’t see a failure as a failure. I think the word itself causes people to go into agony. Usually, if I failed at something, I would say,  “Well, it didn’t work. I need to find out what will make it work.” So, in a sense, I don’t believe in the concept of a failure. Now I can say, I think I have this nature because of the Depression. In the Depression, it was almost like you failed every day. It was constant failure. And to survive, I found—don’t spend a lot of time on a failure. Learn from it, and then move on. I have a general spirit, “If this didn’t work, and it so-called ‘failed,’ try something else or try it again.” And it works. That’s what I do all the time. So it has a lot to do with my general attitude.

BW: Unfortunately, in our culture, there’s an emphasis on never failing.

JM: That’s partly an unfortunate byproduct of education, especially now with standardized testing. We’re conditioned to dread failure. Failure has connotations of death. But life, in many ways, isn’t like school. Failure is often the best opportunity for growth and change. Failure is almost like fertilizer for growth and change. So-called ‘failure’ is a learning experience, oftentimes the best learning experience. It’s how you learn, but most people don’t see it that way. What I observed so often in my work—people are so blocked by a fear of failure they won’t even risk taking a step in a new direction. They like to maintain the status quo or stick with what they’ve seen work. They want to play it safe to avoid any kind of failure. And never mind those who engage in unethical behavior to become a success by any means to try to avoid failure. Or those people who give up completely when they have a failure. Which is very sad, because the process is no big deal. I think a good example to have—Thelma, my wife, loved to cook and bake. One day, she was baking something new. And I said something like, “It smells pretty good. Do you know how it’s going to turn out?” And she said, “No. I’ve never baked one of these before.” And I said, “Well, you seem very relaxed.” And she said, “I’ve learned in cooking and baking that when you do a new recipe, it’s going to take three times before you will know what to do. When I do the recipe the first time, usually it doesn’t turn out very good. But I have learned what didn’t work. So I do it a second time, and it’s much better, but still I see some things that didn’t work. The third time usually comes out good.” And that’s a basic principle that I believe in. And it’s the foundation, in a sense, of my whole approach to management and corporate counseling. Basically, by taking a step, you learn what works, what doesn’t work so that you can make adjustments in taking another step. And that’s what I used to teach, that’s the way I counseled all of my clients, and that is why I was able to do things with them that had never been done before. Because I would talk to them and encourage them in this way. Whereas most people in business want the magic answer, “How do you do it and make sure it is going to be right?” There is no way.

BW: They want certainty right up front. They don’t want to risk.

JM: Yes and often they don’t want to learn. The key thing is to LEARN. There’s no value in going into another step without saying, “Why didn’t this step work? What did I learn?” You need to take time to learn from it. What worked, what didn’t work, and why. And based on why it didn’t work, you can revamp the next step. So it’s a learning process. If you don’t learn, that’s when failure becomes a big problem because there is a tendency to repeat the same mistakes over and over again. People will dig themselves deeper and deeper into a hole and make things worse and worse for themselves. People who don’t learn tend to keep repeating the same self-defeating pattern or behavior with the hope or expectation that, “This time it will work. This time I will get the pay off I am looking for.” Like those people in gambling who don’t know how to cut their losses and stop a losing game. They don’t recognize that something needs to change within.

BW: Often people think they just need to change something external. For example, they think, “If I move to this new place, get this new job, or get this other person into my life, that will fix the problem.”

JM: Most often, what is needed is an inner change. But unfortunately many people don’t want to change. Some people—they don’t want to learn. They don’t want to reflect. They don’t want to examine themselves. It’s too painful. I suspect that is why many people fear failure so much and can’t admit or face failure because, in a way, it forces you to look at yourself. But failure, particularly a major failure, if it is faced completely, can be a gateway to a better or more appropriate direction in life.

BW: I’m reminded of what your wife said after your bankruptcy and foreclosure. She said, “You’re going to find the right pathway now.”

JM: What she was recognizing all along was that the business enterprise that I was trying to build was mail order. And she kept saying, “Julian, this is not the business for you. You’re a people person.” And I would say, “No I’m not. I enjoy the people that work for me, but I’m not a people person. I don’t know what I am.” That experience of having the business for five years and having it go bankrupt—in most people’s minds, I failed totally. Not just partly, but totally. But looking back on that part of my life, I realize that during those five years, I learned a great deal about managing businesses and that was part of the reason for my success in consulting. My clients were puzzled as to how I knew so much. They’d say, “How do you know how difficult it is to meet a payroll?“ And I could say, “Because I was there. I’ve done it. I failed.” And so my point is, that experience, which was very difficult at the time, became very valuable later on. As well as put me in the right direction.

BW: To step out in a new direction or keep going without knowing where you are going takes courage and faith.

JM: Yes, it does. A lot. And I think I could say that most of the times, we don’t know where we are going. A lot of people think they know where they are going, but they really don’t know. And that’s why they get surprised when things happen. It has to do with expectations. And my belief is, we never know. I don’t care what age you are, whatever you move into, you don’t know how it’s going to turn out. At the age of ninety-one, if somebody said, “What’s it going to be like in the next year or two when you get more frail?” I just say, “I don’t know.” I don’t try to predict, I don’t try to expect. And it’s a very important part of life to know there is no way of knowing. No matter how hard we try, how well we plan, we don’t know. But there is no failure and there is nothing to fear if you’re learning and trusting.