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Are you friends with failure?

I remember at one of my old nonprofit fundraising jobs, making the smallest mistake was the cause for disciplinary action, reprimand, and dire accusations of waste and thoughtlessness.

Imagine if we encouraged our fundraising staff to make mistakes. What if their job was to try 3 new things every year? What could they accomplish, if they knew they were expected to fail? What freedom would they have if they could get permission to try a unique monthly giving strategy, or a battering ram grants strategy, or a

Imagine if we thought of it as “Failing Forward.”

Author John Maxwell talks about the worst case of failure that I have ever heard.

Dr Beck Weathers-A doctor obsessed with climbing mountains, scaled Everest during a freak blizzard. He was left for dead and lapsed into a hypothermic coma.

He came down off the mountain and his hands and nose were frozen off. He lost his limbs, and now he says it was the best thing that ever happened to him. Because it reminded him of what is really important. His family. He said, I wish I had my hands back, of course, but I don’t know if I would have gotten the message any other way.

Each year, I talk about my failures.

For example, here are:
My failures of 2012
My mistakes of 2013
My mistakes of 2014
My mistakes of 2015
My mistakes of 2016

Why would I do that?

Because in our perfectionist culture, we don’t allow ourselves or others to fail, to make mistakes. Especially if you’re a woman, or a woman of color, you’re much less likely to be allowed to make a mistake before you are judged incompetent.

Erma Bombeck,  author of 15 books, recognized as one of the 25 most influential women in the US, and received 15 honorary degrees, also had her share of failures. Bombeck said, when speaking at a college commencement, that she was- up there because of her failures, not because of her successes.

She said, “I had a comedy album that sold 2 copies, a sitcom that lasted about 2 minutes, a Broadway play that never got produced, book signings that attracted 3 people.

She said, “What you have to tell yourself is, “I’m not a failure, I failed at doing something.” There’s a big difference. The trick is to put it all in perspective.”


In John Maxwell’s book, he details the 7 behaviors that can set you apart when you fail.

  1. Reject rejection. This means take responsibility for your actions, but don’t take failure personally.
  2. See failure as temporary.
  3. See failure as an isolated incident.
  4. Keep expectations realistic. Don’t get your feelings hurt when everything doesn’t turn out perfectly.
  5. Focus on Strengths. Don’t bother trying to be good at things you’re not interested in. You’ll never make much headway. Focus on what you gravitate towards, naturally. There are so many things to be bad at. Accentuate what you do well.
  6. Vary approaches to achievement. Some people have as many as 17 failed businesses before they hit on one that works. I myself have had 5 failed businesses before I hit on one that worked.
  7. Bounce back.  Simone Caruthers says, “Life is a series of outcomes. Sometimes the outcome is what you want. great. Figure out what you did right. Sometimes the outcome is what you don’t want. Great. Figure out what you did so you don’t do it again.”

4 more of the Best Quotes about Failure

  1. “Contrary to popular belief, I consider failure a necessity in business. If you’re not failing at least five times a day, you’re probably not doing enough. The more you do, the more you fail. The more you fail, the more you learn. The more you learn, the better you get. The operative word here is learn. If you repeat the same mistake two or three times, you’re not learning from it. You must learn from your own mistakes and the mistakes of others before you.”     -Jim Zabloski
  2. “The most important thing in life is not to capitalize on our gains. Any fool can do that. The really important thing is to profit from your losses. That requires intelligence and it makes the difference between a man of sense and a fool.” -William Bolitho
  3. “If there is any single factor that makes for success in living, it is the ability to draw dividends from defeat.” -William Marston
  4. George Bernard Shaw says, “A life spent in making mistakes is not only more honorable but more useful than a life spent doing nothing.”

Maxwell’s 15 steps to fail forward are these.

  1. Realize there is one major difference between average people and achieving people. Achieving people learn from their failure or mistakes. They are teachable. That’s it.
  2. Learn a new definition of failure.  Maxwell, in his book Failing Forward, talks about 7 key misconceptions about failure. For example,
    • People think failure is avoidable. It’s not. What is avoidable is taking failure personally- and making that all you see about your life from now on.
    • People think failure is an event. It’s not.
    • People think failure is objective. It’s not.
    • People think failure is the enemy. It’s not.
    • People think failure is irreversible. It’s not.
    • People think failure is a stigma. It’s not.
    • People think failure is final. It’s not.
  3. Remove the “you” from failure.
  4. Take action and reduce your fear. Inspiration follows action. Not the other way around.
  5. Change your response to failure by accepting responsibility.
  6. Don’t let failure from the outside get inside you.
  7. Say goodbye to yesterday. If someone hurt you in the past, all you can do is acknowledge how you feel, process it, and let that go.
  8. Change yourself, and the world changes.
  9. Get over yourself and start giving yourself.
  10. Find the benefit in every bad experience. I did this, when I read the book The Story of Your Life, by Mandy Aftel. In this book, she talks about how when you lost that job, or a person ended a relationship, they did you a favor. It’s all in how you take it. You wouldn’t want to stay in a job where they didn’t want you there, or stay in a relationship that was one-sided, would you?
  11. If at first you do succeed, try something harder.
  12. Learn from a bad experience and make it a good experience. (You can do this too-read Mandy Aftel’s book!)
  13. Work on the weakness that weakens you.  You can do this by focusing on your strengths– and if you have a weakness that is really holding you back, to look at that.
  14. Understand there’s not that much difference between failure and success.
  15. Get up, get over it and get going.

How about that?

Do you feel better about that last mistake you made?

I hope so!

Want more on how to be a better leader and making mistakes?

If you want 65 more fundraising career resources, just go here.

If you want 99 more nonprofit leadership resources, click on over here.

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