Toronto-based Ashley Good is founder and CEO of Fail Forward, a consulting biz that, as its name implies, shows people how to rebound after setbacks.
Good’s key message is failing intelligently, which she defines as maximizing learning when failure happens. “It’s about not being paralyzed by the fear of failure, but the willingness to take those risks in pursuit of innovation, learning and growth,” she says.
FLARE asked Good for her best tips for on bouncing back after a bad interview, a fight with your significant other or even losing your job. Here, her best advice for how to handle failure—without letting it define you.
What made you want to create Fail Forward?
I got into this business in the depths of a failure: I had been working for Engineers Without Borders overseas on this really neat agricultural project, but everything I tried to do to support small local farmers to make more money didn’t work. Basically, I came home and I didn’t have a job and I was living in my parents’ basement—plus, I’d just been dumped by someone I thought I was going to marry. The only thing that made sense to me in that moment was that failure was an honest relationship with how hard it is to do great things, to make change. I was deeply interested in talking about failure openly, and I really saw a reluctance in being able to really do that.
What was your first project?
I took the lead on the Engineers Without Boarders Canada Failure Report, which documented stories from across the organization of things that didn’t work and what we’ve learned. As a little side project, I started helping organizations do the same thing that I’d helped with Engineers Without Borders: sharing those stories, writing them down, maximizing learning. Very quickly that little side project turned out to be bigger than a full-time job, so I just started a company and made it a full-time job.
What is Fail Forward’s mission?
Our raison d’être is to help people in organizations fail intelligently. Recognizing that, in general, all we’re taught about failure is to avoid it at all costs, but that failing well and failing intelligently is a skill that can be built with practice. So, our philosophy is to help people and organizations hone that skill in pursuit of both maximizing what they can learn from those experiences, but also to keep going, to keep taking risks, to be willing to try new things.
How can someone actively work to change his or her relationship with failure?
Our instinctive response—fear—isn’t going to go away. We want you to acknowledge that fear and act anyway. That’s the practice in building our confidence, and our ability to have the courage to take action even when we’re scared. Ask yourself: What’s worth it? The things in life that are great and give us a sense of accomplishment—they’re not going to come easy.
How can someone ‘fail intelligently’ after…
… giving a bad interview?
Decouple your ego from your activity.
Y’know that moment after failing, when your heart sinks and you get down on yourself? I think in that moment it’s really important to separate yourself from the failure. You need to say over and over again, “Just because I failed, doesn’t mean I am a failure.” This is one experience. It’s an event. It’s not a ubiquitous statement of who you are as a human being. Ultimately, you can still do something fully and be strong and capable and worthy. So, try to remind yourself of that in that moment.
There’s one really fun practice I borrow from the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, Benjamin Zander, who has this great video in which he talks with educators about teaching kids to play with musical instruments. He talks about how every time they fail, their body pulls down. He says that’s the exact wrong response—you should throw your arms up and yell “How fascinating!”
I love that—it kind of puts you in the mindset to be curious and appreciative of the effort as opposed to focusing on the outcome.
… fighting with a significant other?
Take a break.
In general, any high tension fight is going to put you in some level of stress response where you aren’t necessarily thinking clearly. In those instances my advice is to do nothing. Wait, walk away, take those deep breaths. When you’re in stress response, you don’t have the ability to think rationally and to consider what might be a step forward. But when we’re calm, we avoid the tendencies to contribute blame or seek quick answers. We can see that, in reality, any failure or argument is likely caused by a bunch of factors. Avoiding that tendency is the first step, and then seeking to understand is the second step. Look for what’s at the root of the disagreement. What do we actually care about?
… losing a job?
Reach out to a friend.
Your job is just one aspect of you as a whole human being. It’s an important one, but it doesn’t define you. After you realize that, share the story. Sharing failure stories has a remarkable effect of removing the blame from the situation. Every time you share, you feel a little bit lighter. While you’re telling your story, ask the person you’re sharing with to ask you curious questions about what you learned. That’s the best response you can get from a listener. Prime your listener to ask you what you learned from your experience and how you’re going to move forward as a way to shift your perspective.
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