I was 22 years old, only 6 months into a new job at a large and prestigious nonprofit, incredibly headstrong and (in hindsight) very inexperienced. It was the week before Christmas, and I was in charge of planning the office holiday party, which would take place in approximately 1 hour. It was time to set up, and I was excited to be doing something less menial than entering information into a database (which was my job) and more creative (which was not my job). But my boss at the time was not interested in me leaving my data entry early to set up for the party, and she relayed to me that I wasn’t allowed to help set up. So I took to email to totally (and wildly inappropriately) badmouth her to one of my colleagues. Except when I hit send, it didn’t go to who I intended. It went to my boss. Needless to say, I didn’t have much fun at the holiday party that year.
Fast forward. I was in my late 20’s, and was in a new role with more responsibility at a new institution; eager to tackle everything and anything that was thrown at me. Part of my job was to compile information that was sent in from folks about their personal lives — accomplishments, births, marriages, deaths — for our quarterly newsletter. It was unbelievably boring. No matter my drive or desire to do my best, I (in hindsight again) let my attention to detail slip and double-checking the information fell off my radar. So when we published and mailed a newsletter announcing a woman’s death when she in fact had not died, it was on me. I failed to do my job, and in turn, it caused her, and the institution undue hassle, anger, and frustration.
Here’s the thing. WE ALL FAIL. These are not the only two times I have failed professionally, and certainly in life, they are just the most memorable because the consequences were higher. Failure is an important part of life, in fact, I’d deem it essential. We cannot grow or succeed without failing first, and failing often.
Why? For me, it’s about the learning opportunity. Making mistakes, tactical mistakes that come with consequences, has allowed me the space to reflect on how I do my work, what risks I choose to take, and what results I am happy with. Later in my career, my failures have looked less tangible and more like how I conduct myself — how I react to people, how I use (or don’t use) strategy to guide my way, how I remain authentic and open-minded in the workplace. But none of the growth comes without a pause. Carving out the time to reflect on the icky parts of yourself that no one ever wants to focus on, and actively choosing a new path. I have given myself that gift throughout my career, thanks to many mentors and a personal drive to always seek self-betterment, and it has paid off for me ten-fold.
Sometimes leadership is about being reflective. And failing gives us the space to do that, ultimately helping us become better at whatever it is we do while we’re here on this earth, for ourselves, those around us, and the organizations that we serve.
Meg Farrell Buckingham is the Director of Marketing & Communications at Triangle Community Foundation, and a co-host of FailFest, an annual event celebrating failure for nonprofit professionals in the Triangle region of North Carolina.
The Foundation hosts this event each year with BCDC Ideas & ThirdSpace Studio because we believe in building a strong and innovative ecosystem of nonprofits with leaders who can address the big challenges facing our region. And taking risks, failing, reflecting, and trying again are crucial to that work.