Our start up company has been starting up for over three years now. I guess you could say we had version 1.0, 2.0 and now we’re starting 3.0. Every version gets better, thanks to all the mistakes we’ve made. And I am grateful for all the mistakes I’ve made in particular.

Making mistakes is underrated. Some of the best work I’ve done has come on the heels of, and resulting from, some spectacular mistakes. The key is in framing mistakes and failure within a context of experimentation, learning and growth. A mistake made without learning is a mistake wasted.

Most of us fear failure. We’ve been taught to avoid it at all cost. Many organizations inject fear into their culture through intolerance to failure. They value results over discovery and invention. Such rigidity allows little room for curiosity and creativity, which in turn limits innovation. Successful people and organizations strike a balance between performance and learning cultures to obtain the optimal opportunity for innovation.  

Woody Allen said if your not failing, then you’re not doing anything innovative. Honda’s founder, Sochiro Honda, said, “Success is 99% failure.” And golfer Tom Watson states, “If you want to increase your success rate, double your failure rate”. These are people who’ve befriended failure, and turned it into an ally.

Mistakes take us into unintentional territory, where other influences are available to participate in something altogether unexpected. The book Happy Accidents shows that over half of the medical breakthroughs had an accidental origin. And what chef hasn’t created something fabulous from an unexpected pairing of elements.

There is a way to engage with failure that gets the most out of it, and turns it into productive failure

•    First, you have to leave shame and guilt at the door. Neurologically speaking, those headspaces take you out of the creative and learning centers of the brain, and into fight or flight (and blame) reactions. 

•    Allow yourself to actually feel the pinch of failure. Don’t run from it. Just imagine it as ‘time released success’. Breathe. Don’t allow the pain and discomfort of making a mistake drive your mind into blame and self-blame thoughts. It’s useless and counterproductive.

•    Next, you have to slow down mentally and physically. Allow yourself to pause and reflect on what happened. Do so with the sense of being an explorer or a scientist seeking a discovery.

•    Journaling is really helpful at this point. Writing things down expands learning and discovery. 

•    Talk about it with others who share the ‘productive failure’ mindset. Access their wisdom and experience.

•    And lastly, capture what you have learned. Again, journaling is the most effective way to do this. Or use a vision board. Or a white-board.

•    If it’s appropriate, share your experience with others.

There, that is my ‘Seven Step Process of Productive Failure’. I came up with it because I make a lot of mistakes. I mess up all the time. 

Otto Scharmer, senior lecturer at MIT, and co-founder of the Presencing Institute calls this way of productive failure prototyping.  Prototyping allows us to experiment, test, fail, learn, and try again with the new information. It establishes a sense of ‘let’s try this’ so that many small, inexpensive attempts may be made, feedback from stakeholders received, ultimately leading towards better outcomes.

Seizing the wisdom of failure is not just a leadership, organizational opportunity. It’s a relationship one too. The other day I blew it big time with a significant person in my life. At first I felt so much guilt and shame. And it got in the way of my connection with them, and myself. It prevented me from being present with what the situation was offering to teach me. 

After taking time, and space, and engaging with what happened, I learned something really valuable about myself and discovered a particular aspect of an unconscious relational blueprint that had previously driven many relationship dramas—something I’d never seen before. 

I was able to emerge much wiser, and even be profoundly grateful for the experience, as uncomfortable as it was. Even better, I was able to share it with the other, which built deeper trust.

So, live a life rich with prototyping, experimentation and exploration. And don’t forget to make mistakes…I dare you. Fall off the map. Blow it. Mess it up. Screw the pooch. Jump the shark. SNAFU. TARFUN. FUBAR. Fail and fail fast. 

I’m looking out upon another six inches of snow — it’s 18 degrees outside. Everything is at a standstill. Traffic. Errands. All of my plans. The snow muffles most sounds. The world is quiet.

I love these snow days because we’re given permission to stop. No school. Meetings are cancelled. Deadlines delayed. No expectations that we’ll race around at our usual velocity. The flywheel of life is allowed to wind down just a little.

It’s about the only circumstance we’re allowed such space anymore. All other kinds of stopping, waiting, and pausing seem forbidden. However, life presents us with difficult transitions or cycles that not only deserve such time, but come with a biological imperative for it.

None of us are immune to intense health or emotional crises that stop us in our tracks. What we lack as a society is the constructive framing and support of such transitions. Crises are seen as something to push through, push past, merely survive and shove aside. Our pharmaceutical culture would have us take a pill and just get on with it. Even friends can turn their backs, uneasy with the discomfort your crisis evokes.

The origin of the word crisis means ‘a turning point’ or ‘to decide or discriminate’ and ‘to sift and separate’, which is exactly what a crisis provides — a chance to shift from one place to an altogether different place inside ourselves. Though terrifying and painful, holding it with the respect and nobility it deserves allows us to embrace the possibility that life is conspiring to do us well, to teach us what we need, to become the people we are called to be.

Author William Horden published an article in The Huffington Post that reminds us of how nature reveals the truth behind what really happens in a crisis. We all know the metaphor of the caterpillar morphing into a butterfly. Yet Horden goes into important detail:

At some point in a butterfly larvae’s life, his skin begins to harden around him, he writes. They then will reside in their hermetically sealed chrysalis while their body literally melts down. There the caterpillar’s digestive juices turn against it, totally dissolving the caterpillar and turning it into nothing but green liquid. Complete breakdown. Should you cut open the chrysalis at this time, the only thing you would see is a green goo pouring out.

There are cells, called imago cells, Horden continues, that serve absolutely no purpose in the butterfly’s life…up until now. When the meltdown is complete, these cells suddenly awaken and organize the other cells to reform and regroup as a butterfly.

I can barely imagine what this transition must be like from the larvae’s perspective. But I can say that at certain times of my life, such internal, and external melting has happened. And things that seemed so much a part of me, or what I called my life, just dissolved — health, friends, family members, professions, marriages, homes, financial stability.

Looking back I see what melted away, had to melt away. The crisis served to ‘sift and separate’ to reveal an essential intrinsic essence. From there a new direction was formed, that was wholly in alignment with that essence.

My mother is one of the bravest, wisest people I know. A two-time cancer survivor, including liver cancer, she embarked on her healing as any hero would do. I call her a cancer-thriver because she did more than survive. She allowed the crisis to return her to her essence and emerged more empowered and free than ever.

“Cancer saved my life,” she says.

Cancer stopped her in her tracks, and in that moment, for the first time, she saw how toxic and abusive her marriage was to an alcoholic. Within weeks of her last surgery, she left him and left the UK to live in the US, closer to me and her grandchildren, and live an astonishingly active and joyful life.

How did she do it? She prescribed to the knowing that her crisis was not just some arbitrary terrible thing, but a moment to sit up and listen. She engaged with it, rather than running from it. She became a student of it, learning all of the things such a crisis teaches. And, as importantly, she had people around her that understood this too.

This is how we turn a crisis into a transition. How we turn from victim, to the hero on our archetypal journey. How we engage with literal metamorphosis.

It means turning away from the cultural norm of a pathology mindset, and turning towards more indigenous thinking, which aligns with the understanding that transition is sacred.

Horden writes, “In many shamanic societies it is taken for granted that shamans are not born—they are created by some intense health or emotional crisis. What emerges from such crises is a metamorphosed person. Not who they were or even who they were going to be but someone more attuned to the world, more adaptable to change, and more powerful in their ability to benefit others. Healers are created out of crisis.”

I would add that true leaders are created out of crisis.

If we are going to change as a society, we need to reframe the idea of crisis for ourselves and each other. Perhaps before we reach for a drink, or a credit card, or a pill, we instead allow ourselves to feel that anxious onset of the chrysalis skin hardening. We can understand that sense of depression is how it naturally feels to take our first step into the dark forest of the hero’s journey.

And we can be there for each other with this knowing. We can hold for each other that melted green liquid without worry, or shock, or disgust. We can gently cup the soul-turned-liquid with reverence, trust and awe, so that we might not just survive, but thrive.