The Self-Affirmation Safety Net

Quit congratulating yourself for “doing your best” and figure out why you failed.

I hate failing.  I hate putting my effort into something that doesn’t pan out. I may not know you, but I hate it when you fail, too. But not for the reasons you might expect: you see, I don’t really care that you missed a deadline or a goal or a personal milestone in your life. Nope. Couldn’t really give a hoot. You see, it’s not the act of failure that I hate. I hate the ego-stroking people do when they admit that they failed at something. It’s the excuses that we use to pat ourselves on the back with after the failure.

We tell ourselves that “we did our best, champ.” How many of you have said, “Well, I may have failed at X, Y, Z but at least I took ownership of the situation. At least I was honest. At least I stood up for my convictions!”  Oh, please. Shut up. I’m not buying it, and neither should you. You’re making excuses rather than plans on how to fix the issue.

It’s as if we’ve found our way out onto a dangerous ledge. It’s the kind of ledge that looks sturdy, the kind where safety is just a step away, but this ledge has given out on us before.  Luckily we’ve always had that “I-did-my-best-self-affirmation-safety-net” waiting below to catch us, bounce us back onto our feet and send us on our way … back up to that ledge once more. And not once do we think about the sequence of events that lead us onto that ledge or the consequences that followed. We learn nothing from our fall except that there was something there to catch us, so it must be okay to fall.

To recap:

We’re asked (or we tell ourselves) to perform a task/attend an event/reach a goal (self-imposed or otherwise).

We publicly commit to completing said task/event/goal. Examples of this may include statements such as “Sure, I can do that.” “I’ll be there with bells on!” or “Today’s the day I quit smoking/drinking/eating too much.”

We subconsciously begin to build our “Self-Affirmation Safety Net.”  We give it a lot of elasticity and ensure that it covers a lot of ground to avoid hitting the proverbial concrete below when we fall/fail.

Side note: we tend to take bigger risks with our efforts once the net is in place because we don’t associate risk with consequence as there is a net to catch us if we fall.

We attempt to do the act that we have publicly agreed to do.  You know—put in the effort and all that jazz.

Then there are two possible outcomes:

We complete the task successfully and praise of some kind or another is provided.

We fail the task we agreed to complete.  We provide self-affirmation for our efforts and everything is right with the world.  There are no consequences.  There is little learning opportunity, because we’ve already “tried our best.”

It’s not really our fault though; the safety net, I mean. We’ve had people build this net for us since the day we were born: parents, friends, teachers, employers. In a recent study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology it was stated that “children may perform better in school and feel more confident about themselves if they are told that failure is a normal part of learning, rather than being pressured to succeed at all costs”  and that “acknowledging that difficulty is a crucial part of learning could stop a vicious circle in which difficulty creates feelings of incompetence that in turn disrupts learning.”

That’s all well and good, but there comes a point in time where ownership and accountability stop being taught, or at least, the lesson stops being learned. You see, when the message of ‘it’s okay to fail’ has superseded the importance of the lesson learned after the failure has happened, we’re in trouble. What we have now is a growing societal/generational norm that says failure is okay but ego-stroking is better. It is easier to seek a conciliatory assessment of the failure than look at the systematic breakdowns that lead to the failure. In letting this occur, we allow people to shirk responsibility, blame circumstance, blame lack of support … hell … blame other people for their own shortcomings. We’re creating a society of self-important, finger pointing tattle tales!

Excuses change nothing, but make everyone feel better. —Mason Cooley

So what do we do? What needs to happen to get back on track? To begin with …stop lying to yourself! Stop telling yourself you did your best or that the odds weren’t in your favour. If you screwed up, then take accountability for it!  Stop spending time soothing your bruised ego after the fact. Nobody needs to hear how honest and accountable you were because you took ownership of your failure.

Instead, take time to break down what happened. Do a little soul searching or skill assessment or root cause analysis to get to the bottom of the problem. Break out the ‘ol Ishikawa diagram if you need to. Just be proactive. Work out the cause and effect of your failure.

Were you not prepared?

Did you have the right tools at your disposal?

Did you have a clear end goal in place?

Did you have milestones or benchmarks to measure your progress?

Why or why not?

Google’s Marissa Mayer, vice president of location and local services put it well in an interview when she said “one of the most important parts of failure is being able to learn from it … and to be able to learn from it, you have to diagnose when it’s happened and actually figure what you should learn from it and then move on” and that “failure is totally okay, as long as you fail fast.”

Lastly, take steps to have those things in place the next time you take on a project or task or goal.  Ask for help with training or resources. Be a pain in the ass to whomever or whatever is preventing you from getting the resources you need to be successful. Be advised … this might mean kicking your own backside from time to time. Be prepared. Find where the fault lies; where it makes its bed … and then go murder it.

Take away the safety net, ladies and gentlemen. Sure, it’ll hurt like hell the first time you hit that concrete. But at least you’ll have a cool scar to talk about at your next business meeting.

Read more Advice & Confessions.

Image credit: iamchad/Flickr

About Cale Helmer

A devoted yet exhausted father to a beautiful daughter and an amazing boy with Asperger's Syndrome. Married to the most tolerant woman in the world who just so happens to be my best friend and my secret crush. I talk a lot and usually eat even more than I talk. Deep down though, I'm a gentle giant


  1. Making excuses instead of owning your shortcoming is not honorable, nor is it effective; in that we agree. But the psychology and neurology of human risk/failure behavior is very complex. Just for one fundamental example: you seem to be demonizing failure, suggesting it’s something that should trigger shame. However, humans learn by testing, failure, testing again a little differently, maybe another failure followed by another adjustment… we are hard wired to fail. That’s how science progresses, how the arts evolve, how technological innovations advance.

    • Hi Scott and thanks for taking time to read and reply. I appreciate your perspective. To clarify though, my opinion was not to demonize failure, but rather point out the behaviour people engage in to booster their ego after they fail. To fail is fundamentally accepted. We are all inherently flawed in some way and; as you suggest, hardwired to fail.

      Failure should not be considered shameful. Rather it should be looked upon as a teaching tool to push us beyond the status quo. Pre-padding yourself with the notion that it’s ok to fail provided you seek out the reasons as to why the failure occurred is ok in my books. But pre-padding as a measure to not try your hardest; to not learn from your experience and simply shrug and say “Ah well…better luck next time”….to me…’s unforgivable.

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