Adam Kreek is a two-time rowing Olympian with a degree in geotechnical engineering and hydrology from Stanford University. Rowing is a mentally and physically demanding sport that revolves around the fact that the sum is greater than the individual parts. It’s a team sport, but every person in the boat has to not only work together but do the work alone at the same time.
Kreek is a professional speaker today, and he informs his audiences that the most important thing he learned at the Olympics was a lesson on failure. Kreek was the fastest starboard on the team until, he says, a “big, bald, Viking-looking guy named Jake Wetzel” started to kick his butt. Kreek didn’t like being displaced as the fastest. His ego was dented, and he immediately thought Wetzel to be an idiot and someone he wanted to physically harm.
But Kreek stepped back from the emotional sway and reverted to the logic that served him well at Stanford: “Wait a minute—here we are competing against each other, but we’re on the same team. Maybe I can learn from him.” One day Kreek approached Wetzel and asked him to have lunch. As they sat in front of a pile of bagels and a dozen eggs, Kreek asked Wetzel point-blank, “Jake, what’s your secret to success? How are you so successful?”
Kreek didn’t expect the answer Wetzel gave him. “I seek failure.” Kreek was in shock and asked Wetzel if he was putting him on. Wetzel went on to explain a Monday-through-Saturday step-by-step approach. He explained that he would pick one workout every week and train to his current limit, that boundary right before failure.
In his words, “I willingly push myself through my known limit, and know I will embrace failure. My body will fail on me and for the rest of the week as well. I will know what my limit is, and I will hover below it, and in fact, the greatest point of growth occurs right below your limit.”
The lightbulb went on. Kreek found the brilliance in the method and embraced it as a way of consistent improvement. It became his edge. He embraced the process, method, and importance of failure, and it made all the difference. His team later won the gold medal at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.
Use All Emotions as a Tool—Even the Negative Ones
To fail forward, you have to distance yourself from emotions. You’re only human—you will feel emotions first—but you need to react strategically, not emotionally. Feel your emotions, move beyond them, and start using logic instead of feeling. Here’s how:
Take a deep breath. Before you do anything else, take a step back and breathe deeply. Only when you start to slow down will your emotions start to quiet. Focusing on your breathing will help you to get out of the instinct part of your brain (the bottom) and into the rational part of your brain (the top).
Feel your emotions; then check them. After giving your feelings a little space for acknowledgment, it’s time to let them go, to make the switch to strategic thinking. Ask yourself, “What is really happening here? How would I rather feel?” These cues will aid you in making the transition. Forgive yourself and forgive everyone involved.
Create an objective framework. It’s important to evaluate the failure dispassionately. Take a step back and look at all parts of the equation. What kept you from your goal? What steps can you take to avoid the pattern of failure? From there, each specific failure will provide you with an opportunity to improve by giving you clues on how not to fail.
Test-drive your new direction. Once the clouds are cleared, you can start to see the answers. How can you move forward? What new steps do you need to take? What old ones do you need to abandon? Be specific and intentional about your goals, and visualize yourself making them a reality.
Assign a value to failure. Now that you see the results evolving, you will start to value failure as the tool it can be. Continue to be vigilant for signs of failure, and start tweaking your direction along the way.
Create your success profile. Once you’ve figured out what works, get out your journal and make detailed notes. Write down everything that brought you closer to a successful outcome. You can refer to this “success profile” to avoid slipping back to the old ways and the ineffective methods that failed to produce a successful result.
Be grateful. Make it a point to practice gratitude for opportunities that come your way. Sure, failure is a powerful punch in the gut, but it is not as painful as the sting of regret. Having the opportunity to change and move forward is something to be thankful for.
You might have to repeat some steps in this process if you feel you are not moving forward or if your new steps aren’t working for you.