I remember a phase in my life a long time ago, a very short phase – one of very significant importance and learning to me. Today, I would like to share this with you.

The Role of Feedback is to Give a Direction. It is useless unless it points out a possible valuable direction.
The Role of Feedback is to Give a Direction. It is useless unless it points out a possible valuable direction.

Some years ago, when I  started leveraging NLP for change work, I was like a child, playing with the patterning and experimenting. All the results I got were ‘fruits’ of a successful learning experience. And very soon, much before I became aware of, the expectations from me changed. People who approached me did not come to me as someone who ‘may’ make things work and is in the process of learning, but rather as someone who will ‘make it happen’ come what may. This was great for a while.

Until then, the unsaid expectation from everyone was ‘You cannot Fail’. That is okay, as long as, that doesn’t become my attitude as well. For about a week I went through this phase where I put on that frame – ‘I cannot Fail’. It killed my performance and creativity. I resorted to ways I know will definitely work instead of pushing the limits of human possibilities. It was a horrible phase in my life. I did not take as many challenges. When I took them, I was fortunate to get out of that horrible frame and continue to deliver results. But, I did not feel alive. It didn’t feel like I was learning or creating. I felt I was in a routine. And that was terrible. I was so glad when I reverted to my old frame of Working! I got even better results. I took up more challenging situations. And more importantly, I started feeling Alive Again.

This may be true for anyone who has had extraordinary success, repetitively. A CEO who took a company from scratch to great heights or an Artist whose work is adored repeatedly or a sales person who rocks every month with results or even a child who has consistently scored high each time!

They all may have gone through phases like ‘ I cannot fail her’ or ‘ I cannot fail the company’ or so on.

Let me illustrate  what happens with that Frame – ‘You Cannot Fail’:

1. Finite goal vs infinite steps in a direction – ‘You cannot Fail’ has an assumption in it. That if something does not work the first time, you have failed. It kills the progressive and exploratory spirit of taking that so-called ‘failed attempt’ as feedback and as a very useful diagnosis, so that you can leverage that for the next attempt. The problem with that statement is that it sets a ‘finite goal’ and a time frame as against ‘infinite steps in a useful direction’. It is better to move towards what you desire in that direction!

Some of the so-called ‘impossible feats’ (even with NLP at its current stage of development) that I have achieved have come from a series of attempts where each attempt brings me closer to the final outcome as I learn from them. Edison experimented with thousands of materials before he made the first successful light bulb!

2. Freedom to be curious – When I was asked, “Antano, is this possible?”, most times my answer has been ‘I don’t know’.  I later discovered that geniuses like Milton Erickson have had the same attitude. When people asked him if he could do x or if could do y, he would respond, “I don’t know but I am curious to explore what is possible.” This is a great attitude. ‘You cannot Fail’ blocks that freedom to be curious.

A Better Frame – “There is no Failure, only Feedback”

I borrowed this from NLP. It is one among the basic presuppositions that NLP introduced.

“There is no Failure only Feedback”

It has an underlying assumption that the overall attempt is not finished unless you are successful because feedback implies that you attempt it again differently!

But you have to be careful with such framing. I have seen a lot of people use that frame to do horrendous work and actually move on. That is unfortunate because instead of using this frame as an excuse if it is used as a learning tool, this would be very powerful for one’s development. The purpose of this specific frame is to provide a Learning Frame for yourself, so that you do justice both to those who trust you and to yourself by relentlessly continuing to explore until you have made it happen. And to fully leverage the power of this frame for accelerated learning, you have to differentiate between different forms of feedback and their use.

There are two kinds of feedback:

1. Negative Feedback (Something you do doesn’t work)
2. Positive Feedback  (Something you do works)

Let us assume that Alex wants to open the gate in my house. And Alex is hanging on a coconut tree and notices that the gate is not opening. All Alex has learned at that moment is that his hanging on a coconut tree has no impact on opening the gate. However, it is not going to take Alex any step closer to opening the gate because mathematically there are infinite ‘activities’ that will give him the same negative feedback and it is impossible to work by elimination, unless there is a finite set of choices or activities and that is never the case in the real world be it business, change process, or relationships.

So, a change agent who takes a failed attempt and walks away saying ‘I have learned from Feedback’ is just as much a joker as someone hanging on a coconut tree and comments ‘I am learning from feedback’ and doesn’t try again. The only learning with negative feedback is ‘look somewhere else’.  Another opportunity to do something else.

The useful learning comes when there is a positive feedback. Jason Friend talks about this in his excellent book for entrepreneurs ‘ReWork‘ where he comments on how it is easier to learn from what works instead of what does not work because the set of what does not work is almost infinite. Imagine trying to assemble a watch based on negative feedback. You would have gone through a billion combinations before you get a single watch.

There is no Failure, only Feedback is a great attitude only as long as the learner is continuing with a tenacious spirit to get a positive feedback that he or she can leverage to get the actual result.

We as humans have an amazing ability to detect patterns. I am going to illustrate this with the game chess. When playing chess, there may be million possible moves as a response for each move in any position. However, not every move is relevant. But guess what? Humans can make that distinction. Computers cannot. A computer has to go over all possible moves and so is limited by the computational power. Humans on the other go over many hundreds of moves but only those moves that are relevant! And this is where experience, intuition, and patterning play a Big Role. How do you pick a relevant option and attempt ‘if something will work’ from among infinite choices?

So, if you are like me, give yourself the opportunity to use this powerful frame from NLP – ‘There is no Failure, only Feedback’ in the right sense and continue to enjoy your journey each moment!

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9 COMMENTS

  1. Hi Antano,
    Your message is so powerful, as if I have hit an ocean of resources. The apt framing of feedback makes such a powerful impact on us. This post has actually given freedom and boldness to the curious explorer child in me. Thank you.

  2. Hi Antano.. 1.So, what and how do I do to get to a particular point decides whether the feedback is positive or negative?
    2.”each attempt brings me closer to the final outcome as I learn from them” – true, indeed i see myself fit into this sometimes but sometimes i have forgotten to see me going closer to the outcome and thus i don’t reach the destination. This takes me back to think how was i dealing with the feedback. Thank you for this great thought.

    • Hi Swati,

      1. Here by feedback I am referring to the actual result of anything that you have attempted to do as against a feedback from another individual. Positive feedback are results that work. For example: When a child learns to crawl and moves the muscles in a way that moves the body forward that is positive feedback. Before doing this, the baby might twist and bend the muscles in a way that does not produce any movement that would be negative feedback. Please note: Negative and Positive are used here in the sense of ‘works’ and ‘not works’ and not in the sense of ‘good’ or ‘bad’

      2. In continuation to above. Everytime there is a progress(movement) in the right direction. It is good to acknowledge so that your neurology repeats that specific movement. And at the same time more important is that you acknowledge only after you have completed that attempt so that your undivided attention is on the activity and not on evaluation of that activity.

  3. HI Antano

    Your message is so powerful and strong that … I was trapped in the presupposition ” Their are no failures only feedback” I was just pushing my self as i am sitting on a ” coconut tree ” .. negative and positive feedback are powerful tool for me to get closer to success i wanted … thanks for writing this article for us…..

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