Fall With Style: Lessons From Buzz Lightyear

Animated movies’ universal appeal is in part due to the timeless messages woven through their story lines. One quote I love is from Toy Story, where Woody jealously claims that Buzz Lightyear does not fly, but rather falls “with style”.

But Woody, they’re the same thing.

I’m speaking metaphorically, of course, about our response to failure and challenge. What do we do when we fail? Do we give up and quit taking chances? Do we blame others or circumstances? Do we fail to learn and keep repeating our mistakes? Or do we experiment with risk, employing a rapid turnaround time for experiments, and then use the data to learn how to better our lives and strategies?

This idea of failing well is discussed by Barbara Corcoran from Shark Tank in business and Lance King with regard to students. People that acknowledge and take responsibility for their failures and then learn from them tend to do much better than those that fail badly, whether in business or in academics.

Failing well in business is used deliberately to spark innovation in a process called rapid prototyping. Innovation breakthroughs occur after learning from a series of rapid, small failures. In a safe environment, rapid prototypers quickly determine what doesn’t work and what works well, then use that information to improve design.

How can we apply this concept in our personal lives?   None of us set out to fail. But should we?

Sometimes we have a tendency to make decisions without acknowledging the existence of our blind spots, and then we’re all in with the strategy. We defend and rationalize the strategy, even if it’s not working, often blaming others or circumstances if things go poorly.   If we are in denial about recognizing failure or our shortcomings, we can go quite far down a destructive pathway, possibly damaging good relationships or opportunities, then repeat our mistakes.

As a recovering perfectionist, I understand that admitting shortcomings is a very difficult thing to do.  Failing to admit my shortcomings then produces the thing I fear the most:  failure.  The worse things get, the more I have to dig in and defend myself or my failed strategy.

Imagine using that approach of denying our failures and shortcomings in business. Will that company be competitive in today’s market economy?

It’s so easy to see that denial in others and the havoc it can play on their lives. We don’t see our own blindspots and refuse to explore them when things are going poorly. In science, we call problems surrogate markers; chaos, challenges, and failure in our lives means we have a failed experiment and need to take a rapid prototype approach to finding a solution. Blaming, ignoring, and denying is antithetical to innovation.

Woody at first struggled with adapting to having a new leader in the group, but eventually learned.  We should take a lesson from both Woody and Buzz and fall with style. Then we too can then fly.