How I recognized my fear of failure was letting my team down, and what I decided to do to change it.
I can recall one day, a few holiday seasons ago when I was having a particularly bad day. I remember that I didn’t sleep well the night before. I had a problem with a coworker, and our boss made a decision about strategic change that I just didn’t believe in. I thought I had made my amends with it but apparently not, because it was still eating me up inside. After a night of very little sleep, I got out of bed late and already felt like I was running behind. Normally, I like to practice a little meditation in the morning, but there was no time for that. I was off and running. When I got to my car, I was balancing my coffee cup, briefcase and gym bag, and when trying to open the car door, I spilled the coffee all over myself and my favorite suit. I ran back upstairs to change because I had a big client presentation that day and couldn’t show up half covered in coffee. I reached into my closet to grab another suit and the suit pants were missing. After frantically searching around for a few minutes, I had to move onto plan C, which was an older suit that was feeling pretty snug from all of the recently missed gym sessions. Needless to say, I wasn’t feeling very confident, but it would have to do and I was off again.
I was already feeling anxious, and late and now my route was snarled with traffic. I reached into my pocket to call the office and let them know that I was going to be late, and my phone is missing. In this day of modern technology dependence, not having your phone is like missing an appendage, but I guess that it didn’t make the transfer when I changed suits. Flush with panic, and angry at every car driving in front of me blocking my way, I couldn’t decide what to do. Should turn around and go back for the phone, or press on? I decided to keep moving since I was already late.
Eventually, I made it to work, and jumped out of the car and ran up to the building. As I was passing through the lobby, I had to do my best Kobe Byrant spin move to avoid a little old lady. Like Kobe, apparently I had lost a step and just as it looked like I avoided running her over, my briefcase went a little too wide and and clipped a shiny red bulb on the office Christmas tree. Despite my frantic speed, everything felt like it was moving in slow motion and I remember the sound that glass bulb made as it shattered against the tile floor and echoed throughout the room. Now there were red and silver shards all across the lobby. I did my best to help clean up, but the receptionist was very annoyed that I a) broke the bulb and b) was aggressively cleaning and encouraging him to clean that fast as well. He finally told me to go, so I apologized and scurried down the hall. I made my way to the conference room, trying to quickly collect myself and not cause too much of a disturbance as I walked in. My boss shot me a quick look of disappointment, and even though I tried to enter quietly, the meeting stops with my presence. I reached my hand out to the client and said “Jim, I apologize for being late.” There was an uncomfortable pause, and I realized not only was I very late but I just called my client the wrong name.
I would have given anything to disappear right on the spot. I felt completely embarrassed and ashamed. I did my best to make it through the rest of the day. Apologizing again to my client and later profusely to my boss, and then I slinked my way home feeling dejected and hopeless. I think I was feeling especially down because it was the holidays. I personally love the holiday season. Normally, there is so much joy, peace and love to be found with friends and family, but on that day I was feeling like the lowest version of myself. I was supposed to attend the office holiday party, which I had been looking forward to, but I just didn’t feel like being social. I spent the evening sitting in a mostly dark room, near the light of my Christmas tree, feeling really bad about myself, and drinking a warm beer. I felt bad for letting my boss and team people down and I couldn’t understand how that day happened. I started questioning everything. Am I in the right career? Am I good enough to do this? Am I good leader? Should I be doing something else with my life? What am I doing with my life?
Right when I was feeling my lowest and about to go to bed and the phone rang. It was my mother. She asked about my day and I begin to tell her how absolutely terrible it was. I started by blaming others and complaining, and then quickly moved on to condemning myself and my career. My rant took up most of the call, and then she asked me: “Why are you being so hard on yourself? Everyone has bad days.”
At the time I didn’t want to admit it, but she was right. It was just a bad day and in the grander scheme of things, it wasn’t even that bad. I could have easily changed the course of the day at anytime. Even though, I was already blaming, and doubting myself, I had missed the point. My attitude was everything. At any point I could have stopped, taken a deep breath, showed myself some compassion and then just tried to do my best from there on. In letting my day spiral out of control not only did I create more problems and anxiety for myself, but I created distance between myself and my team. Shame got the best of me, and instead of celebrating the holidays with my co-workers, I separated myself and was alone.
Most of us are familiar with the concept of “fight or flight,” but I believe that sometimes we aren’t aware that fight or flight is going on inside of us all of the time. There were times throughout that day that I struggled and fought against myself and what was going on and there were definitely times I ran away from myself and what was real. Ultimately, I think we are really hard on ourselves, when we become something that we know we are not. I am almost never late, or have road rage or forget someone’s name, especially someone as important as a client. I got consumed by the fear of failure and I stopped being myself, and I let my team down by not being there for them.
Shortly thereafter, I came across the following quote by Réné Gaudette:
“Simply give yourselves that which you need – which is love and appreciation without judgement.”
This quote coupled with my mother’s question about why I was being so hard on myself, really got me thinking. It’s not always easy to be appreciative in a tough situation, and it certainly isn’t easy to show yourself appreciation and love, when things are going as you had planned. Taking this into the context of the holidays, we spend most of this time of year showing others that we love and care about them, but don’t really take much time for to care and appreciate ourselves.
After that tough day, I decided I was being too hard on myself and instead of remembering everything that went wrong, I wanted to remind myself of everything that was going right in my life. At first it was difficult to indulge in self appreciation, so I just started writing about what makes me happy. I thought about times in my personal and professional life when I was at my best. I remembered that I played an important role in getting that client in the first place, and besides that one day, I had a role big in delivering an exceptional product that exceeded expectations. I wrote about a time when a friend really needed support and I was there. I wrote about my coworkers and employees and how I felt like we had an exceptional team, and I felt good contributing to our work. I recalled an office happy hour where I laughed so hard I cried. Once I got started, I kept going. It turns out that there was a lot I was proud of. I took that letter and saved it and the following Christmas, I opened it up as a present to myself. I felt so much joy in rereading what I wrote. There were experiences I had forgotten about and the letter warmed my heart and from that deep appreciation and compassion I felt empowered. I could hardly contain the smile on my face.
This year, I encourage you to give yourself some deep appreciation and love without judgment. In order to be at your best personally and professionally, it starts with recognizing your strengths. There is a growing field of science about the power of appreciation and mindfulness, which at a basic level informs us that if we want to bring out the best in our organizations, we also have to bring out the best in ourselves. This holiday season take 20 to 30 minutes and write yourself a letter. Reflect on the things that you did well this year. The times you felt contentment, joy and laughter. The times you really excelled personally and professionally. Write about what you are most proud of. Was there a time this past year when you did something that surprised you? Write about the capabilities and strengths that made you most effective. After you finish your letter, put it in an envelope, and write on it “Open When You’re Having a Bad Day.” Whenever you feel like you or your day is spiraling out of control, open the letter and show yourself some compassion and appreciation. Recalling your strengths and expertise will help get your day back on track, which will have resounding effect on your friends, family and organization.
Photo credit: Flickr/Torajiro