It’s been one year since I started the Famous Failures podcast, where I interview the world’s most interesting people about their failures and what they learned from them. As you might imagine, asking guests to appear on the show has made for some interesting conversations.
“Hey Dan, I have a podcast where I interview failures. You’d be perfect for it.”
Surprisingly though, most people I’ve approached have been eager to appear on the show because they know firsthand what many neglect: Anyone who’s done anything meaningful has failed in some fashion. Having interviewed 40 titans on the podcast—including top entrepreneurs, Olympic medalists, and New York Times bestselling authors—one thing is clear: Everyone—and I mean, everyone—is a walking imperfection.
But most of us are terrible at owning up to our goofs. Our public image is synonymous with our self-worth. We puff ourselves up and create curated portrayals of our imperfect and flawed lives. We round off the edges, airbrush the negatives, and present a perfect image to the world devoid of any failures.
Even when we talk about our failures, we do so in a flattering light. Our response resembles the typical answer to the much-dreaded What’s your biggest weakness? interview question: I work too hard.
I get it. It’s painful to fail. Airing your failures can compound the pain. But the opposite approach—denial and avoidance—make things worse. When we pretend we didn’t fail, when we reframe our failures as successes, or when we hold funerals for failed startups complete with bagpipes and DJs spinning records—as Silicon Valley does—we don’t learn anything.
In order to learn and grow, we must acknowledge our failures, without celebrating them. Take, for example, the approach of Sara Blakely, the founder and CEO of Spanx. She went from selling fax machines door-to-door to becoming the world’s youngest self-made female billionaire. At company-wide meetings, Blakely highlights her own “oops” moments. Likewise, Ed Catmull—the president of Pixar and Disney Animation Studios—talks about the mistakes he’s made at new employee orientations: “We do not want people to assume that because we’re successful, everything we do is right,” he explains. The economist Tyler Cowen wrote a detailed analysis of how, in the lead-up to the 2007 financial crisis, he “badly underestimated the chance that something systemic had gone wrong in the American economy.” “I regret that I was wrong,” Cowen wrote, “and I regret that I was overconfident in my belief that I was right.”
Acknowledging failures is particularly important for role models—leaders, teachers, and celebrities. We tend to put them on a pedestal. We assume they’re superheroes with skills and talents that mere mortals lack. We believe their success was predestined and cooked into their DNA.
But if we saw the messy reality behind the seemingly untarnished glamour, we would be more comfortable to make mistakes and less likely to become paralyzed when failures start to hit. With their failures revealed, our role models look more human and less divine.
This is why Wharton professor Adam Grant opens his very first class with a story about his biggest failures. “I want students to feel comfortable challenging me, asking me questions, seeking help, and asking advice,” Grant told me.
Leading by example is cliche—because it works.
Research shows that people pay close attention to the leader’s behavior since they depend on the leader for recognition. Research also shows that people look to the leader to take the first step in initiating a change. If leaders fail to acknowledge their failures—if there’s a perception that the leader can do no wrong—it’s unrealistic to expect employees to take the risk of challenging the leader or revealing their own failures.
Consider a study of sixteen hospitals with top-tier cardiac surgery departments. The cardiac teams led by surgeons who were more willing to acknowledge their own fallibility were the most successful at implementing an innovative technology for conducting surgery. For example, one surgeon repeatedly told his team: “I need to hear from you because I’m likely to miss things.” Another surgeon would say, “I screwed up. My judgment was bad in this case.”
What made these messages effective was their repetition.
Entrenched behaviors don’t change with one impassioned speech. As team members heard these messages over and over again, they developed the psychological safety to speak up—even in an environment as hierarchical as heart surgery. “There are no sacred cows,” a member of one surgery team explained, “If somebody needs to be told something, then they are told—surgeon or orderly.”
Whether you’re in the operating room, the boardroom, or the classroom, the principle is the same: The road to success is filled with potholes. You’re better off acknowledging them than pretending they don’t exist.