I used to fear the unknown. I was terrified of failing or letting someone down. “What if they hate me for it?”, “If I fail, will I be shunned for life?”, and “I’d rather throw myself into a prickle of porcupines than let anyone down.”
I had these fears build up whenever I took a test, applied for funding, talked to new people, or tried a new experiment. The fearful voices in my head wouldn’t stop. They would scream how it was better to stay in my office/room and wait for it to all blow over. It was reassurance that I was saving myself by doing nothing. I was imprisoned by these fears; it took time to get over those irrational thoughts. When I finally conquered them, it was a weight off of my shoulders.
What changed? I gave myself permission to fail, which led to the creation of the blog you are reading now.
As a graduate student, I’ve found that not only should I not fear failure, but I needed to be willing to fail. I granted myself permission to fail; I told myself it was okay if everything didn’t go well or exactly to plan. The effort of trying a new endeavor or experimenting was important because it allowed me to learn quickly, even if it failed in the end.
These experiences have led me to a bold conclusion: if you haven’t failed in some form, you aren’t giving everything you got. You’ve got to be willing to take the leap and potentially fall flat on your face.
Why we dislike failure
As with most of our behavior, it’s evolutionary. Way back in the caveman days, when people were tribes of less than 50-100 people, rejection (resulting from failure, usually) was a death sentence. Rejection from a tribe meant that you had to fend for yourself. Considering that the majority of wildlife was larger and wanted to eat you, the aversion to rejection strengthened over time to prevent this scenario. Since this reaction has become ingrained, we have largely kept these extreme aversions towards failure to present day. Now it’s pretty rare that we are going to be mauled by a lion, but the association still remains and still arises in moments of potential failure. It is powerful and painful; with many suggesting it’s one of our most potent reactions. This has been further reinforced within many of our educational systems; where if you don’t get that “A” grade, you may be labeled as a failure. All of these aversions lead to bouts of anxiety and dread that are largely conjured in our minds, but never exist in the real world.
This brings up another scary issue. Most people are content with being comfortable; actively repelling any potential discomfort. The sting or possibility of failure causes distraction and numbing rather than embracing and learning. Most would rather lose themselves by binge watching Mad Men than remain present to the situation bringing them discomfort.
Don Draper has your back…right?
Failing is a learning experience
Most of the ire attached to failure is due to how we frame it. Many frame it as a negative experience. However, I’m going to challenge you to frame it in a positive light.
Remember when you were riding a bicycle without training wheels? How did you learn to balance? Was it from your mom/dad holding onto you the entire time? Or was it from falling and learning how to shift your weight differently (i.e. failing)?
I’m willing to bet all of us learned by experiencing the latter; we lost our balance, fell into the dirt, dusted ourselves off, and tried again. We tried until we finally gained our balance; successfully riding down the open trail with the breeze in our face. This same thing happens in all aspects of our learning from failures. Just like learning on a bicycle, we’re going to fall when we try something new. There are rarely one hit wonders.
Some say stormtroopers work on their bicycle skills more than their shooting.
Here’s another issue: the fantasy of learning something new, but never taking action. Whenever we want to try something, many of us read until our eyes burn. However, it’s common to never take action and try the new skill/experience/endeavor we read about. The result is a person who may know a lot, even the technical expertise, but never trying to do it. In other words, it’s someone with “no skin in the game.”
Why does this happen? Because they fear failing and what others might think of their failure. They don’t want to deal with the potential negativity (most of which is all in our heads. We always play the worst scenario on repeat…when in reality, no one is going to care). If only these people would take the first step and just do it, they would learn it isn’t all that bad. Just like on the bicycle, talk is cheap unless you’re taking action. You have to take action in order to see any result or success. And to be clear, you WILL fail in the process.
Mentally reframing failure (and potential failure)
Much of the issue behind why we tiptoe around failure is because we think about it in the negative. It’s viewed as something aversive and painful. Even worse still, we catastrophize a potential failure so much that we scare ourselves away from acting on it. Thus, we make every effort to avoid it and use every preventative measure in the book; leading to a lot of potential life changing works thrown away due solely to fear (*conjured fear).
However, with a mental check, we can prevent fear from shackling us. There are two ways to reframe depending on where we’re stuck:
- Conjured failure, beginning something new: When starting something new (a business, blog, experiment, skill, etc.), instead of rerunning the same potential catastrophes in your head, think about what will happen if/when it goes right. Make it tactile; give sensations to the scenario and it becomes more vivid. What would it look, smell, and feel like? What would it allow you to do? Would you be better or worse for trying this new idea? If you have a visceral image in your mind of what life would look like by implementing this, your mind will buy into it. That mental reality becomes believable and it will be easier to start your brand new endeavor; surpassing the fear of taking action.
- After a failure has happened: Don’t dwell on the negative and backpedal into what you could have done. It’s the past, nothing can change it. There are two reflections you do when failure occurs: you must reflect on how and then why the failure occurred. Importantly, remove your ego from failure. This process does not include beating yourself up. You are no less of the person because you failed. You’re just back to where you started. The fact that you tried is already a huge step; this experience gives you feedback on how to do it better the next time. The point is to bring ourselves into the present and learn from the experience. Once you’ve done the assessment and learned all you can, pick it back up and try again. Don’t stop riding the bike; a failure is not your permission to quit!
Embrace failure, but be smart about it
I can see it happening, I’m going to hear stuff like: “Sean has given me permission to fail! I can fail at anything I want now.”
Not necessarily! You should rid yourself of aversions to failure, but you shouldn’t fail just because you can. Believe it or not, there is such a thing as being “addicted to failure.”
How do you get addicted to failure? By trying that new project that you know will fail just to relieve yourself of it. You see, some purposely fail to avoid doing the hard work required to create something great.
How is this different? It’s the intention of starting something that was doomed to fail from the start. Is this project for sure going to fail with zero upside or does it have a chance of failing with high upside? If it has a chance of failing and it’s something that could benefit the world greatly, this is a risk worth taking. However, if it’s doomed from the start and has no benefit, it’s a waste of time and energy.
Being clever on what you start and learn is key for maximizing your chances of success and making the most of potential failure. So by all means, start that blog or project that has the potential to be something great. We all would love to see it. However, if it isn’t founded with good intentions, ideas, and not a product of your soul, then it will be a wasted opportunity.
I’ll leave you with this fantastic quote by Teddy Roosevelt, a man who was familiar with failure and never gave up. I look back on this quote whenever I lose sight of my goals or feel overwhelmed. I hope it helps you as well.
Thank you for reading! If you enjoyed reading the post, I’d appreciate if you shared it with someone who also might benefit.