I remember the first time I heard the phrase “free to fail.” I was in a Bible study with Bob Warren, former west Kentucky pro basketball player who came to know Jesus in his late 20s and spent the remainder of his life teaching God’s Word.
Warren was communicating to believers that we are loved and accepted because of Jesus’ performance, not our own. Therefore, we need not live thinking God’s acceptance of us is based on performance. We are free to fail. As much as we desire to honor Jesus and please Him in all things, we will undoubtedly fail, and when we do, we must know that God does not love us any less. This doesn’t mean we are encouraged to fail – and we’re certainly not free to live in sin – but knowing that this inevitability is covered by God’s grace is freeing.
I heard this concept again recently in a podcast that teaches fundamentals of philanthropy. The guest was encouraging leaders to take risks by trying things that may fail, but also encouraging leaders to learn from their failures.
How can we interact with our failures and learn from them? Here are five suggestions:
1. Ask good questions about your failure. John Maxwell said that experience is not the best teacher, but reflected upon experience is the best teacher. Reflect on your failure by interrogating it with the five W’s and an H: who, what, when, where, why and how. Ask questions like: “Why did we fail? What could we have done differently? If we were to do this project again, what would we do to avoid the same result?” Those questions can take away the sting of failure and propel us back to work with fresh energy.
2. Solicit helpful feedback about your failure. Ask others to give you unvarnished feedback. Ask them to pick out one thing they think might be helpful if you try the project again. Getting helpful feedback in any organization can be difficult since most of us like to be encouraging and oftentimes feedback is anything but encouraging. Creating a culture where feedback is honest and helpful (and solicited) will change how an organization views failure.
3. Pray and ask God to help you better understand your failure. Recently I prayed about a matter that I viewed as a failure. While in prayer, I received clear direction from God about an important next step. James 1:5 promises wisdom to those who ask.
4. Own your failure and do not let it define you. It is easy for leaders to connect their identity to their work or ministry, which makes failure hurt that much more. However, any student of Scripture knows that leaders fail and hopefully they learn and grow from their failure. God uses failure to shape us, not define us.
5. Put the lessons from your failure to work and go try again. There is no lesson like a lesson learned from failure. Falling on ice makes us more careful when we walk, and failing at a project makes us more careful to avoid those painful consequences a second time.
Michael Jordan, arguably the greatest basketball player of all time, said this about his own failure on the basketball court: “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
Jordan learned from His failures and so can we.