Everyone I know is terrified of failure. We’ve been raised with “failure is not an option,” and besides, we want to achieve and do a good job in as many ways as we can. We want to be seen and recognized for our best.
So whenever I work with my clients – either individuals or teams – and open the door for them to imagine or (yikes!) even embrace failure instead of bracing against it, resistance is immediate and ferocious.
I get it. Nobody wants to be a loser. It takes a great deal of personal security to have the luxury to embrace failure.
And yet, failure is a constant and necessary part of life. We fail all the time because we are engaged in so very many things in our lives that there is absolutely no way to succeed at all of them.
When I put my energy and time in my business, I often neglect my home. When I’m spending hours in the garden, I may not cook the best meals. When I sit up late with a friend in crisis, I fail at the laundry. We make trade offs all the time, prioritizing in the moment where to succeed and where to fail.
Only most of us just don’t just let ourselves fail and let it go. Because we hate, hate, hate the thought of failing, we don’t consciously choose where and when to fail. We let exhaustion make that decision for us. We keep doing the laundry, finishing the work projects, and answering emails long after our energy is gone. And then we feel guilty and beat ourselves up for not doing it all as well as possible. We are ashamed of our failures because we interpret them as being due to our character flaws.
We failed and therefore we suck. Or, as our inner critic would remind us, we suck and therefore we failed, yet again.
That’s one of the traps of avoiding failure – we set unachievable standards for ourselves and then feel awful when we can’t meet them. This keeps us in the land of the inner critic, always living from some version of not good enough.
Old paradigm: I’ve failed means I’m a bad person, which means I live in shame.
Another huge trap that comes from fearing failure is that we severely limit our actions, our creations, and our productivity. We wait for things to be perfect. No first drafts or prototypes for us – we insist we produce success the first time, every time. And so we produce nothing.
When we over focus on preventing failure, we stay stuck. The need to be thorough and perfect and right keeps us fearful, stuck, and playing small. Perfectionism is a strategy our inner critic uses to keep us from doing what we are called to, from being our full selves, from taking risks to launch our creations into the world, from actually making the changes we yearn for.
Being willing to fail, changing our perspective on failure so that we see it as a part of our lives and our process of discovery, and being open to using failure as a feedback mechanism pointing us towards success, is off-the-charts radical. It is an enormously powerful perspective for getting out from under the rule of our inner critics.
New paradigm: Failure is a natural part of life and is part of my process of exploring and experimenting my way to what I want. I am resilient and capable and can handle the impacts of both my failures and my successes.
Here’s a practical example of embracing failure as part of experimenting our way to success: Many years ago as a new coach I was challenged to ask people to be my client by focusing on getting 100 people to say no to me. So the process not only normalized the failure to get some one to agree to be my client, it made getting the “no” the goal. Of course I got a full calendar of clients before I got to 100 people saying no.
In Fail Fast, Fail Often, How Losing Can Help You Win, authors Rabineaux and Krumblotz give many arguments for embracing failure to get you to success. They say, “failing quickly in order to learn fast – or what Silicon Valley entrepreneurs commonly call failing forward – is at the heart of many innovative businesses. The idea is to push ahead with a product as soon as possible to gather feedback and learn about opportunities and constraints so that you can take the next step.”
I certainly learned a great deal about getting clients when I completely disconnected myself from the shame of failing at it by making failing my goal.
Need more evidence? Consider dandelions and light bulbs. Dandelions are one of the most successful plants. They live on every continent, have one of the longest growing seasons, and are quite hardy and resilient. Each plant produces a single seed head, which can have up to 100 or more seeds. As we know, many of these seeds will not make it to the ground to sprout. Despite all these individual seed failures to sprout, the dandelion succeeds brilliantly.
You’ve likely heard the story about Thomas Edison and the light bulb that took such tremendous effort to create. When asked what it felt like to have failed 10,000 times before successfully creating a light bulb, he replied, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
He also said, “Negative results are just what I want. They’re just as valuable to me as positive results. I can never find the thing that does the job best until I find the ones that don’t.”
And then there’s the advice from my Daddy while vacationing at the beach, “Let’s go set some low goals and fail to achieve them.” To succeed in deep rest, relaxation, or play, we have to be willing to fail in some other areas.
There’s way more to failure than shame and avoidance. It can be the key to our success.