Fail Safe: Facing Failure Successfully
I’ve been there too—on the verge of failure, past the denial stage, though not-yet failed. You too are beginning to acknowledge a cold reality—you face imminent failure—the failure of your dreams and desires, your vision, your enterprise. You’ve done your best, and it’s now out of your hands. While not caught in inflated, self-delusion (which is healthy), you avoid people, are afraid about the future, and even angry with yourself (all unhealthy).
The prospect of failure is definite, not made-up. It’s not that you are prone to fear. As a relatively successful risk-taker, you are much too hardened for that. And yet the bases of your worry are not imaginary. The upcoming scenario is as real as your existence. You are simply unable to deliver your promises to yourself or others.
What should you do? What could you do?
I am not writing to the “already failed”—such survival would need other complete category-changing tactics. I am writing to those who are about to fail, who know that failure is imminent. This is not an easy piece to write, but may I share some time-tested wisdom for an ounce of hope?
First, a word of commendation. Your realism is refreshing. If you weren’t realistic you wouldn’t pick up this article. Most people prolong their misery in self-help, grandiose thinking, or take-charge self-talk, but the facts are undeniable: failure is likely and just around the corner. And you face these facts squarely in the face.
Not long ago, the chairman (owner) of a rather large corporation--the biggest manufacturer of a world-famous brand--wrote to me.
Dear Dr. Ramesh,
When I received your email of 31st December, I was in a better mood than in what
I am today. Year 2008 ended with good hopes for 2009. As usual, I paid bonuses to all our workers, and mind you, we have about 2,500 employees.
We had our regular [Chairman’s] speech by me on 2nd January, and thereafter I got the news that our buyer has suddenly stopped orders. This results in a major financial crisis to meet the salaries of our workers at the end of the month and [repaying] loan interests to the Banks.
I applaud his realistic look at his situation. You should ask to be given “the facts of the day; the hard facts, the full facts of each day, today.” If you sought those who’ll give you a true look at your situation (not an invented, delusional, negative view, or a fantasy, illusionary positive outlook), and have indeed concluded that failure looms, read on.
The experts call it “falling technique.” Type that phrase into your search engine, and you’ll find that falling is not failing. It is part of the profession or sport (e.g., football or tae-kwon-do) where falling is inevitable and imminent. These activities even require you to prepare for the fall, and then to take the fall. Actually, if you try to avoid the fall, you will be injured by the fall! And they recommend that “in everyday life, when you start to fall, instead of trying to avoid the fall and being injured in the effort, take the fall in a controlled manner or even purposely fall in a safe manner rather than falling uncontrollably.”
How should we fail in a controlled manner, or fail-safe(ly)—i.e., purposefully fail in a safe rather than an unsafe manner? Recent high-profile suicides are proofs of selfishly failing unsafely.
1. Fail-Safe Spirituality
In clever double-entendre, a famous newspaper declares its uniqueness with “we live in ‘Financial Times.’” Actually, not! We live in spiritual times which include the possibility of failure. “Failed-states” do not refer to nation states alone. It can refer to personal states as well.
I propose two spiritual imperatives in facing imminent failure. Both imperatives ought to be pursued without attempting to manipulate or obligate God to correct our woe-filled situation. That is, we do not try to suddenly become pious or throw offerings to get God to act on our behalf. He already knows when and how we are trying to maneuver or manage Him. And yet he is merciful to us.
These spiritual imperatives are premised on a strong “theology” (i.e., right thinking about God). Our God is a radically good God. He is more anxious to outdo any loving father. Even earthly fathers will not give a serpent or stone to a son who asks for fish or bread. The Lord is also a really able God--able to do immeasurably more that we can ask or think. While optimism may be one of the timeless characteristics of leadership, the Bible instead uses “hope” as the operative word in the middle of uncontrollable and unpredictable realities. “Hope” is optimism built on strong theology. Otherwise optimism will be merely self-made, generated by the very self that got us into the messy verge of failure in the first place.
Our spiritual imperatives, in the face of prospective failure, call for a basic and dynamic, two-way communication with this good and able God of the Bible.
Talk to God
Intensify your prayer-life. Converse with Him more and often, than ever before. It is startling how much we do not pray when we most need to pray. What may we pray for in the face of failure? Talk to God about:
1) Protection—protection from Satan; from unpredictable circumstances; and from more stupidity on our part. Ask God to protect your endurance, i.e., your character in the middle of the upcoming failure. An amazing gift of the good and able God is the provision of His grace for the journey as it happens, not before or afterwards. I’ll go one step further here: God Himself perseveres on behalf of the saints, to finish the good work that He has started in you, to complete what he created (Phil. 1:5-7). Let Him persevere on your behalf, while you endure hardship. Depending on your own ability to persevere is too much of a challenge at this difficult time. Ask Him for strength to endure the upcoming adversity.
2) Correction—You live at a most sensitive and potentially sensible time of your life. Since you are shaking, quaking, and likely breaking under the weight of some of your own decisions and actions, you are especially open to hearing God like never before. In a series of paradoxes, the stronger you think you are, the weaker you really are. The more important you feel you are, the less-relevant you have become in terms of solutions. Your previous hallucinations of unlimited success are being corrected by the reality of unlimited feelings of failure. You once couldn’t tolerate criticism, now you are becoming your own best, or better, your own worst critic. The same reality to which you thought you were entitled and have revolve around you, is completely outside your grasp. You have now come to the edge of your intellectual and emotional capacity.
Instead of first figuring out what you may have done wrong business-wise or organizationally, ask God for heart-correction. What wrong values have you unintentionally nurtured? What must you change in attitude and behavior? Of what should you repent? How should you reorient your perspective, vision, and habits? Is God possibly disciplining you as a favored kid? Where is God calling to surrender? God seeks to place you in a “I give in to you, Lord” (not “I give up on life, Lord”) situation. He welcomes you to surrender control, not responsibility, at this grueling season of your life. Pray for correction. Such prayer reveals a repentant, abandoned, and open heart.
3) Intervention—Facing a failure that is about to consume us is not unique to us. In Christian conviction, God is the master of time and space, personally bringing his power to rescue his servants from the coming doom. Even nature often shakes at this power of divine brinksmanship, in his timing and spacing of rescue. When Moses stood at the verge of the Red Sea with impending catastrophe as the only scenario, he cried for God’s intervention. God is still the God of marvels and miracles who can provide His way in or your way out. Ask Him!
Above all, when you talk to God in the face of forthcoming failure, I recommend praying within a three-fold prism: God’s glory; our good; and the advance of the gospel. The Psalmist regularly petitions God “for Your name’s sake.” Like us, in the sin of forgetfulness, unbelief and ungratefulness, the children of Israel rebelled against him, and “Yet he saved them for his name’s sake, so that he might make known his mighty power” (Psalm 106:8).
At other times, the Psalmist desires that God will look great (among believers and unbelievers) by answering his prayers. The Psalmist is not crying to God to protect his own public image in the community, but to exalt God’s saving reputation among all people (cf. Ex14:18). We too do not pray for the sake of our PR image to be clear. Instead, “image-loss” may well be the crux of brokenness in business losses. We pray for God’s reputation to be enhanced among believers and unbelievers through His answer to our prayers. Fortunately, this good and able God is also good and able in “omni-tasking.” While receiving due glory by His response to our prayers, He also accomplishes our good—even God’s discipline is for the good of his children, and the advance of His gospel (Phil. 1:12ff).
As you keep talking to God while failing well, listen to God too. While you seek direction during stable times, your prayer for direction now overflows into intently and intentionally listening to Him.
Listen to God
There is no sure way of listening to God except by hearing Him in the Bible. Again, it is amazing how much we do not read His Word when we need most need to hear from Him. Consult with Him in His Word with prayer for direction—for direction in your minute-by-minute decision making, for your next and immediate action. Since your failure is yet to materialize (you still have time left, even if it’s just a short time to your failure), prayerfully listen to God in His Word for direction. Our good and able God is able to direct you to angles of understanding that you never knew existed; to courses of action that you never considered; to options for action that you can still take.
After listening to God in His Scriptures, gain wise counsel from experienced mentors and friends. None of them arrived unscathed by defeat and untouched by failure. While I was on the verge of failing, God gave me two 75-year-old, spiritually wise giants. If it weren’t for their empathetic love for me, they wouldn’t have treated my hardship seriously at all! They had seen so much and survived, even succeeded, in spite and through failure. Another older friend alerted me to keep up with physical conditioning for “being worn out causes mental mistakes.” And yet another 70-year-old friend simply decided to be here for me, turned up at our offices, and did his work from there rather than working from his house…for a whole year. I could talk and listen to him any time.
Below are some deep gains in the exercise of listening to God and His counselors that I share as practical next steps in applying fail-safe spirituality.
2. Fail-Safe Practicality
Personal Discernment: I learned from my mentors (and I’d like you) to grow in discernment, especially in self-understanding and business-wisdom. The only time we grow is when we are down. Analyze your position as thoroughly and as objectively as you can. While realizing that you are the one most aware of the details and complexity of the situation, bounce questions about your own judgment—your assumptions, decisions, and actions—with mentors. Good mentors are gently brutal, but overall you leave your meetings encouraged to act. Then write out the “take-aways” from the wise. We possess a marvelous, human ability to forget the intensity and the lessons of experience unless we intentionally record and recover them. Write them all down and then check back with the list often.
Last week an influential man wept in my office, just about to fail in his life’s dream, having invested over 20 years to grow his enterprise. Since I had written out over a 100 leadership lessons I learned during my own period of near-failure, I was able to put some hope and courage into this friend’s heart. You need hope (again, optimism based on solid theology) to help you continue through each upcoming moment. Self-understanding will help you with hope in a back-door sort of way.
Discernment also calls you to look at realistic worst-case scenarios. Potentially real scenarios are not necessarily realistic. We can make out the problem to be worse than it is. Existentially close to a hopeless and uncontrollable situation, you don’t possess independence or impartiality in analysis or solutions. In my case, while speaking to these wise counselors, I came up with ideas for solutions. And they, often unknowingly, gave me new ideas to explore and apply in my situation. As often happens on a counselor’s couch, we sometimes come to good decisions about our “next–actions” just by listening to ourselves speak aloud to one who lends us his ear. In my case, we were able to forestall some dimensions of problem. Discernment also kept me from falling into self-fulfilling prophecy by always remembering that the threat of failure is not the same as failure. Visit Scripture—for wisdom, start with the book of the Proverbs; and for faith, stay in the Psalms. Then visit with these wise counselors (they are all around you if you look) as often as possible.
Active Disclosure: Intensify communication to all relevant constituencies. Prioritize to whom and for whom you are responsible. Make your message as honest, consistent, and straightforward as you possibly can. If you don’t initiate regular communication, those vested with you will create make-believe stories about you and the upcoming failure. Anticipate their questions and concerns. Keep communicating, communicating and connecting, communicating and connecting clearly, consistently and candidly with your constituents! Whether you owe the government or “the little guy,” talk to them. Talk to them even if you can’t meet their expectations. In addition to transparency of information, declare your good intent. If you have to choose between those who can help themselves (government) and those who can’t afford losses, take care of the small-guy first, and then chip-away at those other debt obligations. Even if people do not trust you, communicating your intent frequently will help plead your case, to overcome the trust-deficit, as they absorb your wish to pursue the best-possible resolution in the fairest possible manner.
Strategic Decisions: My mentors inspired me and I want to reinforce the not-so-obvious, obvious conviction: this is definitely not the time to shut down. Your first strategic decision is to soldier on. This is the time to consider various solution-initiatives—short-term and long-term options. Usually what constitutes a “major” problem does not have a lasting solution accomplished by a program within a specific time limit. Hence, diversify initiatives to varied solutions, just like the wise diversify their investments. Look at where you have already failed, and address them as best as you can with the information at hand. This information will include impartial input from God, His Word, wise counselors, and circumstantial realities. In addition to short and long-term benefits, think through matters of short and long-term regret too. What would you regret over the long run? Combine hard work (intellectually and practically), trusting God’s provision to come upon new initiatives to pursue. In uncertainty, you face threats but also opportunities for personal and professional change. Perhaps, you need to change habits of life, mind, heart, and body; or move into another business; or find other income avenues, like a temporary job, all of which you may end up enjoying after all.
I’d also strategically decide to serve those worse off than our selves. In giving to others of time, money and energy, there is less self-pity, a better perspective on worse situations, and more humble gratitude. There are failed people all around us in whose need we can participate even as we are headed down the precipice. A part of the Christian hope is an increasing conviction that life it is not going to be as bad as it seems; that there are others who have it worse; and that by creatively serving those who have it worse, we find strength for our own upcoming failure.
Fresh Dreams: Evaluate everything outside your “core” and the assumptions behind them. Then consider alternatives beyond a mere line extension of your history, and ponder ways in which you have never been used before. I recommend that you don’t fall into self-pitying sullenness and sloth, any more than you fell prey to the greed and avarice which possibly caused this failure scenario. Instead, get up early every morning; go to work; don’t make your upcoming failure a burden on your loved ones. Do not quit. Or better, I learned from my mentors to go ahead and quit at night, but to be sure to start up again the next morning.
I also invite you to new aspirations for your life—post-failure. Talk to God and listen to Him (and others) about His next steps for your next season. Setbacks are not permanent; failure is not final. You may not be able to avoid failure, but you certainly can avoid disaster. So pray and plan for what else you can be and do after the pain of failure. The brink of failure serves as the platform for innovation and fresh dreams. And you will soon join the elite clan of those who give hope to others on the ragged edge of failure. When you share how new vision is stimulating your adrenalin into action, even the most humiliating failure can be thus redeemed into a profitable future.
Yes, failure may be at the door, but you can fail-safe and fail-well. Talk to God and listen to Him daily and first. Then go into your failure with great anticipation that the good and able God is working out His glory, your good, and the advance of the gospel. Indeed, how you handle upcoming failure is the greatest preparation for the next season of your life of success and ministry. No one wants you around them if you have never failed, because we’ll never know if you have what it takes when life becomes hard, long, and tough.
So, anticipate the failure, discern your position, disclose the information, decide on your next actions, and dream of a new future with God at the helm of your life and present in your problem. You can fail-safe(ly). Go into your failure with hope (optimism based on good theology, remember?), hard-work (the Proverbs recommends it), and endurance (the New Testament has much to say on this strength of character—look it up).
If you are about to fail, you might as well fail well—much like those learned falling techniques. You will survive and will definitely grow. You’ve got our good and able God behind, around, above, and under you. Best of all He is in you, because you welcomed His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ to be your eternal savior, an eternity that includes this earthly pilgrimage of ups and downs, sin and forgiveness, success and failure.
You cannot be fail-proof, but you can be fail-safe. Safety and failure do go together if addressed with wisdom. Failure need not be fatal. Fail-safe, and fail thee well, dear friend.
I finish with the Psalmist’s comfort: “The LORD delights in the way of the man whose steps he has made firm; though he stumble (i.e., nearly fails), he will not fall, for the LORD upholds him (i.e., you) with his hand” (Ps. 37:23-4).