Dear Graduates: Learn To Fail

This week’s Courier Herald column:

Some of you are graduating High School. Some are graduating college. It’s a time of year when people will congratulate you on your hard earned successes.

You’ll sit through speeches filled with altruistic visions of how you’re going to make the world a better place. You’ll be told how you have the power to change the world. You’ll be told that the hard work you’ve exhibited to get here is just a fraction of what you’re going to accomplish.

Allow me to be a bit of a contrarian. What you likely still need to learn is how to fail.

You’re hearing all about success right now. You just graduated, and that’s totally appropriate. Hard work should be recognized rewarded, and celebrated.

Failure isn’t something that needs to be celebrated. It does, however, need to be recognized. That’s not always done in today’s participation trophy society.

We like to pretend failure doesn’t really happen. We excuse it. We deflect it. As a result, too often we don’t grow from it.

Think of it this way. At the gym, failure is where strength comes from. Pushing muscles to the point of failure is what tears them down so that they can grow back stronger. It’s through the regular pushing to or slightly beyond the muscle’s limit that growth and gains occur.

The lesson here is in the corollary. Those that refuse to push themselves to the point of failure end up playing it safe. There’s little pain in this. There’s also little gain.

I once was talking to the finance manager of a car dealership who was incensed that his main lender had a .6% percentage of bad loans bought from his dealership. Having a banking background, I saw that as a good thing. He didn’t.

Industry standard at the time for that class of loan was a 1% to 2% non-performing loan mix. To him, it was a sign of lost sales. His buyer was being overly cautious and not being aggressive in buying loans from his dealership. That was costing him monthly sales, which is what paid the salaries of everyone in his dealership. The lender’s refusal to accept “normal” failure was pushing his dealership into its own sequences of failure.

To be clear, it’s not that failure should be sought, or risk parameters should be ignored. After all, I’ve also worked for a bank that had an auto loan portfolio with double digit percentage of non-performing loans, and we were losing about $6,000 per car we took back.

This was in the early 1990’s, and that was real money. Enough that the bank itself almost failed. There was too much risk taken for too long, with no one minding the store until it was almost too late.

But this, too, is why the lessons of failure must be learned. If you never are forced to feel the sting of failure, everything begins to look like success. Cautionary warnings are ignored. The eventual and inevitable failure is often much bigger and total as a result.

As such, it’s important to understand failure early on because it’s a sign that you’re pushing yourself and growing. It’s also important to understand that it should hurt a bit, as a reminder to take a learning opportunity and to not make the same mistakes over again, often in a bigger scale.

In the end, failure must be recognized so that you can learn from it. Ignoring failure and pretending it didn’t happen only leads to making similar mistakes. It doesn’t make you stronger, but rather, complacent in an incorrect path.

So graduates, enjoy your successes. But also recognize your failures. The two are both part of life and go hand in hand.

Failure in life will happen. Treat the occurrences as the learning opportunities they are. Move on from your failures, better, wiser, and stronger.

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