Learning Beats Failing, Every Time.

I was talking with a couple of healthcare executives recently, and one said something that I found profound: “I don’t do things to say I’ve done them. I do things to learn.” The owner of a Tesla, he continued: “I didn’t buy an electric car because I wanted to be the guy who owns one. I wanted to learn more about it.” Humble brag aside, I thought the mindset was interesting.

He continued with the learning focus: “when I try something, I learn. Usually people might call that success or failure, but I just call it learning. Whatever the outcome, you’ve gained knowledge from the experience.”

That comment reminded me of a mindset that I’m seeing a lot lately. Fail early, and fail often. Fail forward. Failure is success. Et cetera.

The critical flaw in these click bait-y cliches aimed almost exclusively at my generation (millennials) is that they put absolutely zero responsibility on the person failing to learn from the experience. I think most of us know that we should adjust after a failure, but few of us take the time to analyze what we learned from the failure.

And more importantly, as Simon Sinek points out in his viral chat “On Millenials in the Workplace”: this generation is so focused on the ultimate goal, and not the journey. A sort of non-committal mantra like “failure is success” seems like a fast and easy way to reach that summit. Failing is easy.

I realize that this is an overly simplistic view of the ideology that many people see behind the phrase, but I think many others truly take it at face value — and that scares me.

Why did I fail? What didn’t work? How can I do it differently next time?

As a leader, these are the questions I want answers to. Not “what happened?” We all likely already know what happened, and you’re raising a problem, not contributing to a solution. In my relatively young career, I can already tell that people who approach situations objectively and offer solutions get ahead. Pointing out problems creates work for other people. Offering solutions leads the team forward.

It’s about learning, not failure or success.

Objectivity is king. We all have some personal stake in the work we do. We also have the ability to change or improve what we produce, and thus, the outcome.

Which brings me to something I’ve been reading a lot about lately: locus of control. In summary, locus of control focuses on what a person believes guides their behavior and outcomes in their life. Internally-focused people tend to believe they control their own destiny (self-determination, personal decisions, etc.), externally-focused people believe their fate is decided by outside factors (luck, karma, deities, etc.).

The more I read about it, the more I am seeing a trend. Given the right mix of efficacy, initiative, and opportunity, internally-focused people thrive (the lack of these, however, can lead to very different outcomes).

When you take a step back and look at it, someone with an internal locus of control will look at the situation and wonder what they did to influence the outcome. Someone with an external locus of control may sit back and wonder what external factors contributed to this outcome, but take no personal stake in the resolution.

Simply stated: someone with an internal locus of control focuses on factors they can influence directly.

That being said, locus of control appears to be less concrete than other personality traits (intro/extroversion, for example), and is something we can influence through behavior.

So, the next time you fail, stop and think. Don’t play defense. Analyze the situation, then offer solutions to the problem. It sounds trivial, but we’re so often focused on not looking bad that we miss the opportunity to make a true impact. Don’t fail, learn.