Finding Value from Your Failures

I’d like to introduce a guest blogger today. Bryan Greenwood is an executive leader at a client of Impacting Leaders. I was so impressed with his New Year message to his team that I wanted to share it with you this week.

As the New Year quickly approaches, it is common for many to self-evaluate and reflect on our accomplishments of the goals we have set for ourselves. During this time of reflection, we inevitably focus on our “successes” and “failures” in reaching these goals. Human nature is a harsh companion as it causes us to generally reflect more on our failures than our successes. I suppose this is natural in a society where there is no shortage of seminars and ads that tout their ability to help us in being more successful. And this constant bombardment of ever changing buzzwords can have the effect of getting us in the habit of doing the exact opposite, by focusing on our shortcomings rather than strengths.

When I think about this, I’m reminded of a book I read by John Maxwell. The book is entitled Failing Forward, and in it, he describes an experiment involving some monkeys, a bunch of bananas and some cold water. I can neither confirm nor deny whether the experiment described actually took place, but it does make a very important and lasting point.

Four monkeys were placed in a room that had a tall pole in the center. Suspended from the top of that pole was a bunch of bananas. One of the hungry monkeys started climbing the pole to get something to eat, but just as he reached out to grab a banana, he was doused with a torrent of cold water. Squealing, he scampered back down the pole and abandoned his attempt to feed himself. Each monkey made a similar attempt and each one was drenched with cold water. After making several attempts, they finally gave up.

Then researchers removed one of the monkeys from the room and replaced him with a new monkey. As the newcomer began to climb the pole, the other three grabbed him and pulled him down to the ground. After trying to climb the pole several times and being dragged down by the others, he finally gave up and never attempted to climb the pole again.

The researchers replaced the original monkeys, one by one, and each time a new monkey was brought in, he would be dragged down by the others before he could reach the bananas. In time, the room was filled with monkeys who had never received a cold shower. None of them would climb the pole, but not one of them knew why!

Failure as defined in the dictionary is very simply the lack of success. This definition demands that to fully understand failure, we must first understand success. While this sounds straight forward enough, over the years I’ve heard a number of definitions of success, and for me personally, the definition of success has changed as I’ve moved through the years of my life. But for consistency, the dictionary definition of success is also very simple; the accomplishment of an aim or purpose.

I know what you’re thinking; who gets to make the determination that the aim or purpose was accomplished? I agree that this can be a bit fuzzy at times seeing that many work goals can involve a review process that includes others. Personal goals have different and perhaps more complicated standards and there are goals involving tangible and intangible results. We can see that something tangible is complete, but the depth of our understanding and our observations require additional focus when the results involve anything more intangible. In the end, it is up to us to decide if we feel the sense of fulfillment that ensues when we’ve reached our goal, or not.

The overriding point is, if we don’t give up on our goals, we simply cannot fail. As an example, I’ve said more than once, leadership and communication are two things that we never really get right, we just keep on trying. There’s no shame in not reaching our goals, only in giving up on them entirely.  But if we keep working on their achievement, we never truly fail. So as you look back on 2013 and into 2014, assess your accomplishments and goals on this simple premise; you only fail when you stop trying. It is through this self-evaluation process and our dedication to it, that we really stretch ourselves and see improvement and growth.


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  • Sandi Weimer says:

    And as I always like to say as we continuously work towards reaching our goals…
    The goal doesn’t change just the accomplishment date!