A Lesson and a Blessing
No matter what industry you’re in, it’s the failures that help you to learn and grow. We need them. They push you to be your best self and are necessary in order to achieve great success, and that's what we want, right? That's the goal. What worked, what flopped, and how those things help you find the right solution are what make all the difference. This is true whether you individually fail or your team/organization is failing. Failing is inevitable and shouldn't be perceived as a bad thing, so though we try to avoid it, we should find a way to embrace it when it happens and see what we can get out of it. If you don't learn a lesson from your failures, then you've missed their greatest gift.
I never thought I'd quote Steve Harvey, but when he gave the commencement speech at Alabama State University last May he said “In every single moment of adversity in your life, two things are going to happen: There’s going to be a lesson and there’s going to be a blessing. If you let the adversity crumble you, you will lay there and wallow in the failure, but life is 10 percent what happened and 90 percent what you’re going to do about it."
YES. I've felt that on a very personal level and there was no one to point to, but me. In early 2010, I was contacted by team members of Dragon Boat Charleston (dragonboatcharleston.org) to design the poster for their 3rd Annual Charleston Dragon Boat Festival. I was flattered and honored to work on a fun project for such an inspiring group of ladies and gentlemen - all cancer survivors. To help me understand what dragon boat racing was, I actually went out on the water with them and let me tell you, it’s no cake-walk. These people are STRONG, they are fast, and they are perfectly synchronized in their frenzied yet graceful move through the water. It was a humbling experience as a healthy and able-bodied woman, and it left me fully motivated to do right by them. I HAD to do my BEST work. And so it began...
For the first three years that I worked with them designing their festival poster, the team always loved the work that I did and were very happy with the results. I, being a highly self-critical and angst ridden creative (as many of us are) have mixed feelings about my work. Some of it I love, some of it I like and some of it I’d scrap and start all over again, but it’s not about me. The work is for the client and their opinion of it is the only thing that matters. They need to be happy and they were. The work was serving them well by attracting the attention it was intended to attract.
Now it was time for the 6th annual festival and was my 4th year working for them. I had what I thought was a fantastic idea sparked by another poster that I’d seen in a design annual. I labored over the art bringing the concept to fruition. I was SO excited to show it to the DBC team and couldn’t wait to get their reaction. It looked like this:
... and they HATED it. They didn’t like it one bit and they were absolutely right. At first I was crushed, but then took a step back and really looked at it from their perspective. For me, it was a fun concept to develop, but the work wasn’t meant for me. I had failed to remember my audience. It was meant for them and did not in any way convey the emotion that they were trying to invoke. This menacing serpentine figure wound into the shape of a “6” (for the 6th annual event) threatened the tiny paddlers above and was not empowering at all. FAIL. Can you say “JAWS”??? Anaconda?? What was I thinking?? I had disappointed my client who expected better from me and I had disappointed myself for so horribly losing sight of the intention of the work and who I was making It for.
Time to swallow my pride and start anew. With limited time and no other concepts ready to flesh out, I sketched and researched. I lost sleep and my appetite. I cried in the shower and went on long runs to clear my head.
HOLYFREAKINGSH*TWHATHEHELLAMIGOINGTODO!!! Then I had it ...
The ‘50s sci-fi creature of horror was gone and had been reincarnated as a **POWERFUL / EMPOWERING** dragon. SCORE!
They LOVED it.
Lesson learned. I failed and failed big. So will you. It’s good for you. Always do everything in your power to make it right for your client. You want to know the best part of this win? They hired me again. *whew* I could finally wipe the flop sweat off my upper lip now. Not only that, but I tried so hard to do right by them the next year that I made my very best work. Festival #7's poster went on to win several awards and even got published in Print Magazine's regional design annual - aka the Oscar's of design awards. My failure made me do my best work. I had learned my lesson and received a blessing in return. BIG SCORE!
You might be wondering, "Well, that's great. Good for you, but how do I apply this philosophy at work with my team?" Great question.
I just recently implemented an entire workflow process change at my weekday workplace due to a failure that was happening that was pretty big on our part. If we had not changed the way we did things, we could risk being non-compliant if audited. BIG problem. The thing is, we thought we were doing everything RIGHT...until it proved to be wrong. It would have been easy to point fingers and try to pinpoint an individual failing, but the more we looked into the issue, the more we discovered that everyone involved was unknowingly a part of the failure. If not one person or failing can be pinpointed then the failure is in the process. We didn’t need to scold or shame anyone. We needed to dig deeper and change our process. Why is this happening and what can we do to change it so that it doesn’t happen again? Finger pointing would have been the lazy easy way out, and would have damaged positive team relationships that need to be maintained. You need your crew and your crew needs you. We reached out to people above our heads with much more experience in the area in question and they were infinitely helpful. We will now have a flawless (hopefully) new process that will still work down the road even under worst case scenario. If the building exploded (**knock-on-wood** Please don’t explode, building. I love you. xoxo.) then the three people who were sick/on vacation that day could carry on without issue. Proficiency-wise it will be the difference between using an old-timey library card catalog or Googling something. So EASY. And the better news is no one will fail as long as they’re using the new process. No one will be shamed and we won’t face the horror of having our asses handed to us by legal because we were doing things wrong. THANK GOD we failed early (and privately) and learned that we needed to fix things and pronto.
So remember, whether the failure is your own and no one can own it but you, or the failure fans out across your team or organization, it should be seen as both a lesson and a blessing. These are the moments you can use to build a better self and a better business. It’s an OPPORTUNITY to be amazing. Use it.
About the Author, Anne Herford
I am a professional graphic designer who’s been living, working and playing in The Holy City since 2004. Having been on the teams at Charleston Magazine, Rawle Murdy, Kiawah Partners, Fender, and now MUSC, I have been fortunate enough to have both work and clients that have been widely varied. It makes for good challenges and keeps me on my toes.
Outside of design, I’m having a great time exploring and dabbling in other creative pursuits and seeing where it takes me. Yoga, beach days, reading and my hammock are my happy places. I love calling Charleston my home and can’t imagine living anywhere else.