When was the last time you admitted failure?

Many years ago I went hitchhiking through France. A lone female, out in the middle of nowhere during one of the coldest nights in an unusually harsh winter. I had spent hours at a gas station waiting for a lift- there was hardly anyone around. At some point a man stopped to fill his tank and I walked up to him asking if he was heading in the right direction, and if he would be up for giving me a lift. He was very surprised to see me (“I haven’t seen anyone hitchhiking on this road since the 80s!”) and it was going to be a long boring drive so he agreed.

For hours we chatted away. I was a lot younger than he was and listened wide-eyed while he told me about his experiences working first as a mechanic, then training as a fighter pilot and how he got fired from his last job as a commercial airline pilot. It was a fascinating story and the world immediately felt much bigger.

At some point I noticed something shiny in the back seat. It had a jet engine attached and did not look like anything else I’d seen. So I asked him what it was. His response: “I have built jet-powered wings so I can fly like a bird”. Today I was reminded of this special meeting when the above video popped up in my feeds.

What really stuck from our four hour long conversation that night is how this journey of his really started.

Although Yves had harboured a life-long dream to do this, he only decided to go all in after he was fired from his cushy Swissair pilot job. And only after an initial period of not feeling so great about losing his job (anyone who has ever been fired can tell you it can really screw with your self confidence and sense of self-worth).

This brings us back to failure. No matter how smart or knowledgeable you are, however well you plan, it’s impossible to go through life without things suddenly taking a turn for the worse at some point. Nassim Taleb wrote a marvelous book about Black Swans, rare events of large magnitude and consequence that cannot be predicted. In it he makes a good point about the futility of trying to predict black swan events, suggesting that a better approach is to build robustness against negative ones that occur and be able to exploit positive ones. This means accepting and preparing for failure as a part of doing, well, anything.

Attempting to get rid of corruption in your country. Building a business.  Lobbying an organisation to rethink their strategy. Prototyping an idea. Trying to do anything new is setting yourself up to fail. Almost every day. Because the outcomes of our efforts are often unpredictable- especially if we are navigating complex systems.

If you are determined enough to keep at anything long enough, you may eventually have some successes. But how do you survive all the failures on the path to getting there?

This is something worth looking into together. Maybe you have to clean someone else’s mess up and are looking for new ways of doing it? Maybe you are seeing a massive failure in the making and want to help the people involved to change course? Maybe you have screwed something up and are trying to fix it right now?

We all have questions to ask our peers, even though it is touchy and a bit scary to “wash the dirty laundry in public”. Not only can it really help us to fix things while they are still salvagable…or limit the damage caused by consequences of failure.  It also makes you braver: there is something liberating about accepting the worst scenario as a possible outcome of any new endeavor…and then just going ahead and doing it anyway.

Yves taught me this many years ago. It has helped me to weather many crises, and to support others in doing the same.

If you want to get involved in exploring this with a diverse community of people from all walks of life come meet us at Living On The Edge 5: fail unfail, a four day get-together focused on failure and how to go beyond it. It happens in Brussels, 25-28 February 2016, and we’ll build it together as we go along. Read more about it here: /t/lote5/609/welcome-to-lote5.