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Snapshot of failure

At the weekend, my wife and I took a trip to London for some quality time together and to see the sites. We went to the National Portrait Gallery for a bit of culture. Most pictures were of people from history that didn't capture me. But one did.

I came across this portrait of Winston Churchill by William Orpen. A younger picture than many of those you normally see of him. Younger than the famed leader who lead the country through most of WW2 as Prime Minister. I was struck by his eyes in this picture. Have a look at them. They seemed to me to have a troubled look. And then I read the explanation.

As First Lord of the Admiralty during World War 1, Churchill was held responsible for the naval campaign to capture the Dardanelles Straits from the Ottoman Empire that resulted in 46,000 allied deaths. He resigned in 1915, his reputation ruined until the Dardanelles Commission cleared his name in 1917. Orpen's portrait was painted during the Dardenelles enquiry and captures Churchill at the lowest point of his career. Open referred to him as a 'man of misery' at that time. Churchill remarked: 'it is not the picture of a man, it is the picture of a man's soul'.

I hadn't realised he had been through perceived failure in 1915 and this was painted at a time when he was going through the enquiry about the failed battle he was in charge of. A time, no doubt, of real anxiety. He was acquitted of blame and of course went on to lead the country as Prime Minister in 1940, 25 years after his resignation as Lord of the Admiralty. This snapshot in time did not define him. Maybe, despite the pain of this, it became something that drove him on.

Redefining Failure

Matthew Syed, in his book 'Black Box Thinking', talks about five big ideas that help create improvement. The first three of these are


1. The greatest obstacle to progress is failing to learn from mistakes

2. A cornerstone to success is a progressive attitude to failure

3. Only by redefining failure will we unleash progress, creativity and resilience

Of course, when you are in the middle of something that has not gone well, particularly something more public, it feels embarrassing and is hard to see the future. We can help those that we work with to manage failure well by reviewing the situation in private, backing the person in public and modelling honest review ourselves. The impact of which can be seen below:

1. Modelling our willingness to share and review failure

2. Reviewing privately things that go wrong

3. Backing people publicly

The more we can create this culture, the more we can help people develop resilience and learn from disappointments that they face. Thomas Edison, the inventor of the lightbulb, is said to have quoted, "I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that don't work." I was discussing this culture with a friend of mine, Emily, She explained how she spoke to a group of teenagers about resilience and used the phrase, 'be more baby'. She gave the example of her baby son, who was learning to walk at the time and saw how he fell on his bottom and then got straight back up and carried on and tried again. Now a baby has a nappy for padding, and a baby has not been affected by the comments or teasing around failure. Take a look at babies and toddlers in nursery and they love to explore and try and try again. When you create the culture of it's ok to fail and learn from failure, you create an environment, as Syed explained, where you unleash progress, creativity and resilience.

Dealing with your failure

Resilience to things can be developed in many ways, and I'll cover that in more detail in another blog. In simple terms though, it starts with:

1. Recognising that you are a human being and even when you have learnt a lot, there is still more things to learn. Not taking yourself too seriously certainly helps.

2. Lifting up your head and getting a perspective.

3. Reminding yourself of past failures and how you overcame them.

4. Surrounding yourself with people with the Black Box Thinking mindset who will help you to see the experience as a learning opportunity

The Snapshot does not have to be the whole story

I'm so glad that I came across this picture of Churchill and through it understood his history. I found this a real reminder that whatever difficulty someone may go through, it does not have to be the end of you. It becomes part of your story and you can write the next chapter and maybe go on to even better things. So whatever you are doing - let's write the next chapter. Make it a good one.

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