Failing into the future

Think of someone you greatly admire or consider a hero. While ruminating about their secrets for success, have you ever also considered how much they may have failed to get to where they are? While that may not be the first question that springs to mind, when you’re curious about how they accomplished certain heroic feats, doesn’t that consideration make them seem more human and relatable, once you know that they’ve also struggled and overcome obstacles along the way?

Fail LabMinnesota Rising recently hosted Fail Lab: Failing Into the Future, a highly interactive event that allowed participants to redefine and draw value from failure, actively practice failing in small and safe ways, share and explore stories of past failure, and consider how to leverage individual and collective lessons in failure to improve the future of Minnesota and our communities. After hearing from self-proclaimed Failure Experts, Allison Wagstrom and Maureen Ramirez, and engaging in a rotation through the Fail Stations, participants explored the following three questions in the FailSafe World Café:

  1. How has failure shaped your successes? How has failure contributed to the lives of our leaders, our organizations, and our communities?
  2. Why is it important to fail? Why does failure matter? 
  3. What do we stand to gain by overcoming our fear of failure? How can we leverage failure for our futures and for Minnesota's future?

The conversation was rich and revealed powerful insights:

  • Everyone who I look up to as successful has most likely experienced failure;
  • Shaping moments are usually associated with failures or unintended consequences;
  • Failure versus success: which one is a stronger catalyst?;
  • In a way, not trying is failure. If you're too worried about short-term failure, it can lead to stagnation, which is long-term failure.
  • The path isn't straight, and that's okay.

There was overwhelming consensus that failure is relative, based largely on context and perspective. Moreover, "failure" is only failure if you don’t learn from it.

To share some key lessons we learned....


Most organizations don’t have flexibility for failure built in, so they have room to move to emphasizing failure as a learning process. Supervisors or colleagues can help by not portraying failure as final. Instead, consider failure a method for experimentation or proto-typing: to analyze what went wrong, use learning to move forward and improve, or realize when something isn’t a right fit and discover what is instead.

In this way, failure can serve as a wake-up call, to reform and allow for organizational learning and innovation. In a team setting, failure can unify people, helping develop stronger teams and relationships. It urges us to be more graceful with each other.


Failure teaches empathy and compassion, patience (from sitting in grief and suspending judgment before declaring something ultimately a success or failure), and wisdom earned the hard way. It offers individuals a sense of clarity and perspective that allows us to re-prioritize, redefine success, and be bolder at seizing future opportunities.

Some attendees declared: it’s almost like you earn badges and gain better stories, and that failure makes one more credible.

For individuals, failure offers a chance to assess what’s personally important to you versus what others view as failure, as well as the chance to decide whose opinion matters more. Look to smaller failures as a method of "exposure therapy" or desensitization. Once you’ve seen failure and overcome it a time or two, you develop resilience, have more confidence, and can lessen your anxiety around failure.

There is no doubt that failures can be incredibly difficult, painful, and life-altering. Sometimes failure can take years to recover from, if at all. And yet, there is something to the fact that none of us gets through this life unscathed. We all fail. And because of this, we’re not alone.

Rather than let our fear of failure limit the moves we make and the risks we are willing to take, we can lean on one another, sharing insights gained along the way, as we strive to contribute to a community of which we can all be proud.

As we look to the challenges Minnesota will meet in future years, may we embolden ourselves and each other to take action, especially in the face of fear, when what’s at stake is a common good greater than our egos, our anxieties, and personal gain. We’re all in this together and, as such, I wish you, and all of us, much success in failure!

How have you failed? What have you learned from your failures?

Photo used with permission of author.

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