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Failure and Fortune

· Goals,About Us

I am very grateful to have ongoing support, humour and care from my partner, Matt. He often playfully says things to me about my career path that both make me giggle and think. I wanted to share some of those reflections because they give insights into the way I live my life and the advice I may give to others on a similar journey.

Failing Upwards

Matt always jokes that when I am older, my biography / autobiography should be called Gemma Perkins – Failing Upwards; My Life In Leadership. Though intended as a way to rib me, it actually seems rather fitting considering my attitudes to failure.

I never see failure as a bad thing. From the age of 16 a very wise mentor of mine instilled in me the phrase ‘failure is feedback’. What this means to me is that success is not black and white, off or on, and neither is failure. To many, failure means ‘I haven’t done or achieved what I wanted, therefore I am not good enough at X.’ Many find failure discouraging or esteem damaging. What I learned early on is to scratch out the second half of that sentence and replace it with a series of useful questions.

I haven’t done or achieved what I wanted so…

  • What didn’t go well?
  • What did go well?
  • Who has more experience / expertise than mean?
  • What new strategies could I try?
  • Do my goals need to change? Are they still relevant?
  • Is there a deeper reason I haven’t achieved this?

Coaching questions like these have always allowed me to use ‘failure’ as an opportunity to really understand my process, keep developing my strategy and metalearning – learning about learning.

On the other hand it is really important to analyse your successes with the same amount of scrutiny to ensure they were not a fluke. Ask why it went well and try to replicate it and improve it further. Not doing this leads to complacency which can be damaging in the long term.

As an adult I realised that all of these thoughts and attitudes around failure are what’s described as a growth mindset: Knowing that ability and skill can be developed with practice and effort and that learning is a process.

So with that in mind failing upwards seems like a badge of honour to me. To me it means that each time I tried something, I learned how to do it a little better until eventually I got to where I wanted to go. That seems to me the most authentic way of learning as it takes you on a fabulous journey along the way.

Making Your Own Luck

Another thing Matt often says to me is that I am a very lucky individual. That is not meant to detract from the hard work I do, but a comment to reflect the strange opportunities that I seem to engage with more regularly than most people.

At the age of 27 I have met the archbishop of Cantebury (Rowan Williams) at a sit down dinner, self published two books, trained abroad in a Swiss palace, spoken at the house of lords, started my own business and many other wonderful things.

I don’t believe in luck in the colloquial sense. I believe in chance and probability and that we make our own luck by responding to our environment. If you go out and meet interesting people, engage in meaningful projects and keep your eyes open to possibilities then exciting things will happen. Opportunities are everywhere but we can be tempted to err on the side of caution out of fear or a lack of time management.

When it comes to fear I always remember another good mentor of mine saying to me ‘If a good opportunity comes along, say yes and work out how afterwards.’ Obviously this has practical limits – no one should take the opportunity to perform brain surgery and hope to work it out on the way. But what this does mean is that we should live within our stretch zone. If we only did what as safe and comfortable we would stifle. The best opportunities challenge us without overwhelming us, making us stretch our existing abilities and learn the next layer without being worlds away from our capabilities.

I mentioned time management because it is very easy to cast aside opportunities because they do not seem like a priority. Time is money and not all opportunities have a direct payoff. Sometimes a small project or chance meeting comes along at a time when normal working or family life is very busy. Having the ability to be flexible and allocate time to random opportunities is an investment in good fortune for the future – it sews the seeds of opportunity and who knows in what way they will pay off.

Final Thought

Both of these attitudes have served me very well so far, and though they may reduce the stability and security of things going on in my life – they fill me with a great deal of satisfaction. Pride at having persisted and learned how to be better in my skills and abilities as well as a sense of controlling my own destiny and fortune which is very empowering. I hope that you can make time to learn from failure and spot the hidden opportunities around you.

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