All I Really Need to Know I Learned When I Failed


At the Kauffman Foundation’s FastTrac Growth Venture program on Thursday evening, I facilitated a workshop for developing a story-based strategy to brand and grow businesses. The entrepreneurs had a range of backgrounds and experience levels that they shared through their questions and stories. Nobody was shy; participants vigorously exchanged points and counterpoints.

While discussing the challenge of building trust in a particular industry where clients are known to be especially skeptical and wary, one business owner’s story stood out clearly. It was a failure story, and it was extremely powerful. People paused, turned around in their chairs, and listened closely. The energy level in the room shifted as everyone’s attention went to “Bobby.” He shared with us a mistake he had made that had almost bankrupted his business.

Bobby shared the story of how he had almost lost his business 10 years ago due to a sudden cash flow dip. He described his emotions at the time, carefully explained the business issues and told how he immediately took steps afterward to work with a banker to prevent this problem from ever happening again. Bobby noted how this experience has forever transformed his mindset as a business owner. Prospective clients, partners and employees appreciate understanding the story behind this balanced approach to managing risk.


“It’s one thing to tell a client or partner that I maintain good cash flow. It’s another thing when they hear this story about how my experience was really tested.”


Failure stories are vital in every professional’s StoryBank. That’s why failures are the first places I look when StoryMining with clients for ideas that can be fully developed into business stories. As the class showed by attentively listening to Bobby’s story, there’s something psychologically satisfying about learning from the failures (and wisdom) of others. We respect and appreciate those who have grown from their mistakes and can articulate the lesson.
1. Authentic: Genuine failure stories are memorable precisely because they stand out from the relentlessly positive corporate-speak that we’ve come to expect. We pay attention when someone says, “I made a mistake” because something interesting is about to happen.
2. Confidence: It takes courage to admit vulnerability. This builds trust by signaling willingness to share good and bad news.
3. Learning: Repairing the mistake shows capacity for growth. Michigan State Research on growth-mindset individuals, who believe that intelligence can increase through effort, shows that they view mistakes as learning opportunities. In comparison, fixed-mindset individuals view mistakes as lack of innate ability, thus missing the learning opportunity. At the organizational level, research at the University of Colorado at Denver Business School showed that lessons learned from success are temporary, but the lessons from failure can last for years.

Failure stories bring versatility to every professional’s StoryBank. Entrepreneur, job seeker, community leader – whatever the situation, failure stories are bound to come in handy. Setbacks happen to every person and organization. It’s the ability to make sense of the bad experience that is so valuable. Take a moment to reflect. Here are few questions to consider as you build your own transforming failure story:

What decisions would you go back and change?
Why do you think you made the decision you did at the time?
What resources, information, or mindset would have led you to make a better decision?
What did you learn? How would you choose differently today?



*Fail Stamp photo courtesy of Nima Badiey

Mind Your Errors: Evidence for a Neural Mechanism Linking Growth Mind-Set to Adaptive Post error Adjustments Psychological Science December 2011 vol. 22 no. 12 1484-1489 Jason S. Moser et al, Department of Psychology, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI

Madsen, P. and Desai, V. Failing to Learn? The Effects of Failure and Success on Organizational Learning in the Global Orbital Launch Vehicle Industry. Academy of Management Journal, June 2010. University of Colorado at Denver Business School

Posted in Communication, Leadership, Learning, Story Tagged with: , , , , , , ,
2 comments on “All I Really Need to Know I Learned When I Failed
  1. Karen Dietz says:

    Thanks Andrew for writing such an important post. I like it so much that I’ve added it to my curated content on business storytelling. You can see it here at Keep writing such great material! And have a great week.

    • Andrew Nemiccolo says:

      Karen, glad that you liked the “failure story” post, and thanks for curating it at Just Story It! Reflecting back on past mistakes can remind us of how wise we’ve become, can’t it! :)

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