Successful people are great storytellers. They have perfected the art of persuasion. They can frame strong arguments and voice them clearly and succinctly. These storytellers are often pros at sharing their success stories. If you ask one of these people to tell you about themselves they will dive into a script of their many successes throughout their life while cruising through their resume. Many of us are these people. How many times have you rattled off your well-rehearsed story of your life to someone else with pride? You’ve perfected this story and framed it to be grand and impressive. Every now and then a storyteller may share a hardship they faced in their story but then explain how they overcame it and reached eventual success. But never does one go through the many things that went wrong.
I recently attended a talk by Harvard Business School Professor, Rob Kaplan, where he touched on this topic of storytelling. He referenced that he encourages his students to perfect their Success Story and their Failure Story. A failure story? Why would such successful individuals want to dwell on their mishaps?
You see, the only way to truly know who you are as a leader and a manager is to reflect on your failures. He continued that failures are defining. Your failures explain your personal quirks and all the weird things you do. It helps explain your insecurities and your blind spots. By writing down and becoming aware of all the times you lost, all the times things didn’t go your way, you will become much more clear on who you are as a person.
Once these blind spots are revealed you can act on them and improve upon them to become a better, more well rounded leader. It’s not just about how successful you are but also how much of a failure you are. Both the wins and the losses define your path forward.
I tried it out and was reminded of what a failure I am and how it has shaped my career decisions and the way I manage and lead. It isn’t easy for me to publicize this, but here goes:
Losing my high school presidential election taught me to be clearer about my plans, vision, and objectives when persuading others to get behind me. Getting cut from first round auditions three years in a row for my high school play taught me that I should funnel my desire for creativity off stage. I’ve chosen a field that requires me to think creatively about business problems and apply my interest in the arts in design and product development. Failing my AP American History exam taught me that you have to be prepared, always, in order to be successful. Being rejected from almost every management consulting job I applied for, taught me that strategy comes from planning and real world application of ideas not seat of the pants thinking. Getting dinged from 2 out of the 4 top business schools taught me that fit matters just as much as academics when evaluating what organization or job you should align yourself with. My failure story goes on and on. And when looking back at this story I realize that each of these failures has made me a better businessperson and leader. Each has encouraged me to make better decisions and has set me on a path to be more successful. And while it hurts to revisit failure, it can open your eyes.
It will indeed be hard to face the many times you’ve lost, but your failure story makes your success story even stronger. Give it a try. I ensure that revisiting your failures will bruise your ego, but it will strengthen you. What have you failed at? What’s your story?