Processing Failure

Ninety global partners have joined us this April to celebrate the 2013 Month of Microfinane (MoMF). It’s a list of who’s who: Kiva, Accion, CGAP, MIX Market, Microplace, and Whole Foods’ Whole Planet Foundation to name just a few. Through our digital platform, my students and I have connected high school, college and graduate students the world over with each other and the microfinance community. We have built a global community focused on facilitating a nuanced conversation around the ideas of client-centered microfinance. My students are right at the center – working with our partners, guiding them in how to participate, and authoring blog posts.  To top it all off, we launched the 2013 MoMF with a video post from Professor Muhammad Yunus – winner of the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize. All of this, all of it, was accomplished with only a $25 budget!

So, how do you launch a global grassroots movement on a $25 budget?

1. We did not ask for permission. We did not wait for someone to say go, shoot the gun, or blow the whistle. We “picked” ourselves (h/t Seth Godin).

2. We were patient. We dreamt up the MoMF five years ago and passed it down from one student cohort to the next. Each year gaining a little bit more traction and momentum.

3. We were persistent. We followed up on every lead. When no one replied to our emails, we emailed them again. When no one returned our calls, we called them again.

4. We did the grunt work. We built a database of over 3000 contacts by hand. We emailed each and every one of those contacts one by one. Hard work did not scare us off.

5. We were willing to fail. We had no road map to follow. There were no “How-To” guidebooks. We just did it. We decided to deal with what happened when it happened. If that was failure, then so be it.

Let’s talk a bit more about failure. Admitting failure, when it happens, is the new rage in the social sector. This is a good thing. However, no one really talks about how to process failure? How to lean into and through failure? I fail students on exams and classes on a regular basis. But, you know what; I have never taken the time to teach them how to process failure. That is irresponsible. It is almost unforgivable.

Well, it just so happens that this past Friday, I failed. I submitted a proposal for a fellowship. I thought I was a competitive candidate. Turns out, I was not.

Sounds like a teaching moment!

So, for all my students, I will share with you (through story of course) how I processed failure this past Friday and in general. There are usually four stages.

STAGE ONE: Self-Doubt (with a helping of self-pity)

I opened up the email from the selection committee with confidence and there it was. The sentence we all dread: “We are sorry to inform you…” I stared at the computer for a bit, got up, and went outside to play with Dillon. We sat a few paces apart on the sidewalk in the sun and pushed his monster truck back and forth. As I was staring at Dillon, the self-destructive commentary in my head began:

What is it about my work that they do not like? What is it about me? Am I not good enough? I am not good enough.”

STAGE TWO: Anger (with a dash of immaturity)

When Kyra arrives home a half hour later, I follow her into the house with my head hanging low. I did not give her too much time to get settled before recounting my failure.

“You know, I applied for this fellowship. I really thought I would get it. But, you know what, I did not.”

Kyra asks “What did they say?”

“I don’t know…something about applying again next year.  Almost every time I apply for a grant or some kind of fellowship with them I fail. It is just one big waste of time. Apply again next year they say…@#%^ that! I will show them.”

STAGE THREE: Rationalization

There are three ways I rationalize failure:

1. There is always someone better.

I like this one because it keeps me humble and hungry. It is also dangerous, though. It can cripple your confidence. If there is always someone better, how can you ever win? Use this one with caution.

2. There is a communication problem.

This one is a popular one for me. Have I clearly communicated my vision, mission, objectives and my strategy for achieving those objectives? Not one of the things I am naturally good at.

3. There are four lights!

There is this incredible Star Trek episode in which Captain Picard is captured and held captive by the Cardassians. He is stripped down, hung naked from the ceiling by his hands, and humiliated in various ways. Overhead, there are four lights shining down on Jean Luc. His captor repeatedly asks him “How many lights are there?” Jean Luc says “There are four lights”. His captor replies “No, there are five lights” and proceeds to punish Jean Luc for incorrectly answering his question.

What is my point? All of us belong to some kind of organization. We belong to families, networks of friends, businesses, sports teams, churches, universities, and/or bowling clubs. They each have their own system of rewards and punishments with which to condition us. They condition our view of the world and our pursuit of particular types of knowledge and understandings.  Certain behaviors, choices and strategies are expected and rewarded when forthcoming. When they are not, we are punished in some manner. Maybe not torture, but we are made known of the organization’s disapproval.

I guess what I am trying to say is that sometimes it is worthwhile to take a step back and truly reflect upon who you are. What makes you unique? What is your center? What does the fire in your belly burn for?

Then turn and take a hard look at the organization that you are a part of, take a hard look at the group, collective, or cohort from which that you seek rewards and affirmation.

Does it fit?

Do they continuously tell you there are five lights when you know there are four?

When you conform, submit, and acknowledge that “Yes, there are five lights” what do you win? Who is the authority figure patting you on the back? Who is surrounding you when you win? Lastly, and maybe, most importantly, when you win, how do you win?

If you are not happy with the answers to these questions, it seems that only thing you are left with is to break away from the collective, head into the wilderness, and burn your own path through this world.

For my most recent failure, I am going with #2 and a touch of #3.

This brings me to the fourth and final stage.

STAGE FOUR: Re-birth (with a touch of attitude)

Do something with the failure. Take it, shake it, transform it, and reconstruct it. Take away its power. Put it out into the world for others to clearly see. When you are done, shrug, move on, and seek out another challenge, which is just another potential failure. Bring it on.



Questions, comments or want to learn more? Just fill out the CONTACT form on my ABOUT page and I will get back with you right away. Thanks. – shawn