Shayne Hughes wants to you to re-define the word failure.
Last year, I voluntarily changed my role at my company. No one fired me, but for a variety of reasons, I felt compelled to relinquish several major responsibilities. Long-standing issues I was struggling to resolve came to a head; at a loss, I stepped aside. Despite several key people telling me they saw it differently, I couldn’t help but undergo the transition with a painful word thumping in my head.
This experience came back to me recently when I listened to Justin, a senior executive in a large bank, describe his feelings after being passed over for a promotion he was sure was his: “hurt, anger, bitterness, depression, failure, embarrassment… absolute dread.”
More powerful than the fear of failure, it seems, is the actual experience of it. For me, it comes as a fierce acid burn in my sternum, accompanied by a harsh voice in my head proclaiming it really is true that I’m not good enough.
Several years ago my eldest son learned to skim board. It took him hours, days, weeks, of effort without apparent progress. Inadequacy and failure didn’t exist in his approach. Only his goal. That’s our natural state, I thought to myself. When did I lose that? When did I conclude that struggle, incompetence, and setbacks were so terrible?
I’m not talking about trotting out that old platitude that it’s important to “learn from our failures.” Of course it is – for other people. I’m talking about the cascade of emotions and judgments that pour through us when we perceive that we haven’t measured up in some way. Why does this hurt so much?
- Core self-worth anxieties – We all carry anxiety about our worth (e.g., I’m incapable, unlovable, not good enough, etc.). We hold these feelings at bay, however, through a variety of coping behaviors (avoiding, will power, over-achieving, etc.). When we fail, our ego concludes angrily that these anxieties are true, now. I really am incapable and unlovable, and so my body floods with dread and self-judgment.
- Bruised ego fantasy – the truth about most “failures” in the business world, however, is that they aren’t failures at all. We’ve simply come up short in our ego’s fantasy of being magnificently successful. The banking executive was hurt about not getting the promotion that was the next step on the ladder. In college, when I procrastinated on papers because I was secretly afraid I was stupid – it wasn’t about getting a ‘D’, it was about not getting an ‘A’.
Our fear of ‘failure’ reveals a hidden truth about what drives us so hard to succeed: not the deep sense of fulfillment when we accomplish something, but rather the dopamine hit of believing others admire and envy us when we score big. We are Something. So many of us in the business world sacrifice the quality of our daily life for the carrot of success, that not getting our reward is like not getting fresh air after being under water for too long.
- Shame of silence – recently seeing the difficulty for several top executives to share their experiences of setbacks reminded me how taboo a topic it is. Our sense of value is so tied to our professional competence that disclosing shortfalls feels like public humiliation. This leaves us a) alone with our pain, b) unable to access any empathy, support or broader perspective from others, and c) modeling for others (colleagues, reports, our children!) that failure isn’t acceptable. So when they fail, they hide it, too. We perpetuate the stigma of failure by not talking about it proactively, and normalizing it.
These emotions when we “fail” can be acute, even overwhelming. The dirty secret, however, is that failure is just the tip of the iceberg: you have much bigger costs in your life from chasing success. When Justin heard the news, he wanted to walk away from everything. He was out of shape and chronically exhausted; he missed most dinners with his young children during the week; he had little time to nourish his relationship with his wife or friends. “Why do I even want to do all this?” he asked in exasperation.
Exactly! If you weren’t going to get the pot of gold and acknowledgement at the end of your sacrifice, would you still do it? Being on the verge of leaving my job last year forced me to challenge all my justifications for the status quo: what I was afraid of losing, who I was afraid of displeasing, what fantasies of success I was still pursuing. Stripped of that, only one question remained: what deeply do I want?
I found new direction and deeper commitment.
How conscious and deliberate we are about our experience of failure significantly impacts how much juice and clarity we extract from it. A few ideas:
- Be curious – when we struggle, and these anxious, even painful feelings surface, write them down! Capture the nuances of how you talk to yourself, the grid of judgment you apply. We all carry an unconscious measuring stick. The first step in dissolving it is to make it explicit for yourself.
- Define learning goals before hand – our ego would like us to just show up and be awesome. An endeavor or role is challenging precisely because you don’t yet have all the skills or capacity. Do the honest taking stock of identifying these areas of growth before you start, and then track your progress on this. You’ll notice that even if you come up short, you’ll have grown significantly.
- Deepen your aspirational clarity – as you experience a setback or failure, and your ego agonizes over not getting your next dose of acknowledgement and superiority, know that this is life challenging you to more deeply own what matters to you. ‘So what?’ if I never get that – would I still do what I’m doing? Why? Would I do it differently (e.g., less driven, more joyful)?
- Be transparent – Failures lose their potency when we talk about them. New ideas sprout from our conversations. Other people see our humanness and share their own. Vulnerability is the birthplace of connection, and this is a powerful place to practice it.
My goal for myself, my colleagues and my children isn’t to diminish the number of failures. It’s to expand the risks we’re willing to take, and the joy we feel as we take them. When we can calm both our ego’s fear of failure and its obsession with success, life becomes an open field of adventure.
What have you learned that helps you embrace failure?
Photo: Flickr/Russell James Smith