Failing Forward

As you can see below, I wrote down what he said on a recipe card that was at our table — and I’ve had it on my desk ever since:

3 Years Staring Back at Me

When times are difficult, or even when things are sailing along wonderfully, this card is a reminder:

  1. It’s OK to make mistakes – they mean you’re trying to get better
  2. I should probably write a blog post about the importance of Failure

For those who know me, I make great mistakes. It’s a highly used skill set in my repertoire. And, as for blogging about the idea … TADA. You’re reading it!

If you’re a regular reader of my my blog, you’ve noticed that I write quite a bit about the importance of risk taking. Risk taking means you are pushing yourself out of your comfort zone to try something new — likely something innovative or creative. You’re pushing boundaries. And when you push into somewhere new, that is when growth happens. But, it’s also where mistakes are made.

And that’s awesome!

Mistakes are ESSENTIAL to success. There’s lots of research that supports the fact that mistakes build learning (e.g. Making Mistakes While Studying Actually Helps You Learn Better, Science Daily, 2018). When you ‘mess up’ you actually trigger critical neural learning pathways in your brain that help you along your learning journey.

We need to have a positive mindset about failure.

We need to celebrate it — not criticize it. We need to applaud failure as much, or more, than we applaud success. Success will naturally encourage congratulations. On the other hand, failure runs the risk of being criticized or condemned as something to prevent from happening again in the future.

And that’s a terrible idea.

When your default is to criticize someone after they’ve stumbled, you actually end up creating a culture of negativity, mistrust and conservatism. You stifle creativity and feelings of being supported — and, you end up eliminating the risk taking mindset that is so CRITICAL to organizational improvement.

So, for me I work to celebrate failure when I see it.

I want to encourage those around me who may not be having the best day. Those ‘OMG Days’ can actually be great in generating better ideas. As Superintendent, I can encourage the missteps when someone is working to make us better — the mistakes are the opportunities.

I guess, really, what I am working to build is a rewarding workplace — an emotionally safe place where people are valued and encouraged — not watched over to ensure they don’t mess up.

Nothing limits creative energy more than criticism and, in the vast majority of cases I really don’t care if something goes wrong — I really don’t. In fact, I will often tell the person, “This is awesome. Where do we go from here?” If we want a District which innovates in every thing we do — Finance, Facilities, the Kindergarten classroom and the Science lab — we need a place where the Superintendent’s office smiles when things aren’t perfect.

Rules, Rules and More Rules

That’s how we get better over the long term — one failure after another.

I sometimes hear an opinion that when something didn’t work out as planned — we need to have a rule in place so it doesn’t happen again. Maybe — rules certainly have their place.

Rules are necessary to ensure that there’s a common understanding about things — where processes are understood, and where general expectations are understood. But, if you write a rule for everything that might go wrong — you risk smothering those in your organization in a bureaucratic monstrosity that is stifling and miserable.

A plethora of rules don’t encourage your team to try new things — a plethora of rules end up killing innovation, excitement and joy.

Here’s a personal example of when I thought having an abundance of rules was the way to go. I used to start my teaching assignments every year with setting classroom expectations — building those ‘necessary’ rules to ensure a good year ahead. I took a full lesson to discuss classroom rules, bathroom rules, tardiness rules, assignment rules and homework rules.

How I didn’t ‘lose’ my class that first day was a miracle. I look back at those times and realize it was a complete waste of time.

What I soon discovered was it was MUCH better to have a discussion about shared classroom understandings. What did we all want out of the year ahead? We took turns sharing our thoughts and ideas. It was no surprise that we always ended in the same place — a respectful place — one where people felt valued — where my students felt safe.

Rules have their place, but you can’t legislate common sense. And, you certainly can’t legislate your way to innovation and a better tomorrow.

People innovate when they celebrate.

Dave Eberwein
Imagine if THIS was the Feeling When There was Failure

As I move through my administrative career I feel even more empowered to celebrate the failure of others — to show trust and provide an emotional safety net.

A laundry list of rules does nothing but kill momentum — staff disconnect from the shared vision and turn inwards to find their satisfaction. They lose their joy of being part of the whole, being a part of something bigger than them.

So, instead of assuming that mistakes need to be eliminated — celebrate them. You will actually end up reducing them anyways. And your workplace will be happier, more creative and more fun. Fun workplaces are productive workplaces. And, productive workplaces are innovation leaders.

So, fail away. Keep trying new things!

Keep tripping and falling. We’ve got you!

3 thoughts on “Failing Forward

  1. Thank you, Dave! How can words on failure make me feel so positive? This is a really uplifting message. I wonder sometimes though, when people say, “We tried that idea and it didn’t work. We don’t want to try that again”, what about the possibility that it wasn’t the right time, place, or people- but it’s still an idea that could be winner?


    • Hi Nola. Thank you for your very kind words. I completely agree with your sentiment — sometimes its about the timing of an idea or action that determines its success. If we support those who may not have been successful THIS time, perhaps they will try again when circumstances are different and success might happen.


      • I really appreciate your consistent emphasis on encouraging risk and being supportive to foster successful learning. It’s key whether the learner is seven or seventy. Although, something resonates for me in the standup comedian joke about the Home Depot DIY ad, “You can do it! We can help!” His response was: “No I can’t! And don’t encourage me!” (Definitely applies to home repairs at our house. ) Thanks again for sharing your wisdom, Dave!


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