I know we’re not supposed to fear failure, but…

by | Aug 10, 2004

Fully engaged tennis player steps beyond fear of failure

How do you respond to failure? How do you feel when you realize you’ve made an error of judgment or violated your own standards?

Personally, I hate it. And nothing irritates me more than a happy-talking, self-appointed New Age pundit who’s getting rich telling me that everything is perfect and failure doesn’t hurt.

Bull. Failure hurts. Fear of failure hurts more. I ought to know. At times I’ve failed at business, love, and living up to my own ethics. I’ve failed as a sister, a daughter, a wife, and a coach. And not all of these failures are in the distant past. There are some doozies from times more recent than I care to mention.

Still, I do claim there are gifts in failure. In fact, I’m pretty passionate about this because I figure that anything that hurts as much as failure darn well better have an up-side.

A few years back I single-handedly destroyed the motherboard on a perfectly good computer by (wo)man-handling a new memory chip into a slot I couldn’t quite reach. I’d installed memory before and I knew what it should feel like. I asked myself again and again if I shouldn’t just maybe stop rather than forcing something that was designed to slip in easily. Impatience won the day, and after spending $300 for attempted repairs, I replaced the computer.

At that time I didn’t have money to burn (still don’t, in fact). Yet I’d been working on right livelihood for a long time, and I somehow realized that this time I simply could not afford to take a nose-dive into a bottomless pit of guilt. (As the oldest of eight children, raised Catholic in a military family, my guilt pit truly is bottomless. I’ll match it against yours any day.)

So I decided to reframe the “waste” of money as a lesson. Since the amount involved was sizable in my world, I further resolved that this lesson needed to be fully worth the cost. With this in mind, I arrived at the following resolutions, which have turned my fear of failure around:

  1. From this moment forth I will stop pretending that I can’t afford to have professionals maintain my equipment. After all, my do-it-yourself project had a four-figure price tag.
  2. From this moment forth I will measure the intensity of my impatience against my willingness to incur a four-figure expense. If giving into my impulse is worth four-figures, I’ll go for it. Otherwise, I shall forbear.
  3. From this moment forth I will celebrate my failures and set-backs by noting the degree of resilience, humor, and humility required to go with the flow.
  4. From this moment forth I will respond to guilt by acknowledging my errors and rectifying them as simply, cleanly, and quickly as I can. From now on, I’m staying out of the pit.

This was a pivotal moment in the development of my business. From that point forward I lived those resolutions to the best of my ability, not to push away embarrassment, guilt, or disappointment, but to use these discomforts as the fuel for growth. Something in me stands taller, breathes deeper, speaks more clearly as a result. I may not like everything I do, but I know longer have to run away from myself. That means I always have a place to stay, ground to stand on, and for me, that is a huge part of authenticity.

I’m not hobbled by the fear of failure.

The brilliant economist and business consultant Fred Kofman teaches an exercise you can use to experience the kind of shift I described above.

Fred calls this a Victim/Player exercise. Write your answers to the victim questions, then take some time to notice where these questions take you. What mood do they leave you in? What attitudes or beliefs arise? What options are you left with for moving on? Then read and answer the player questions. Again, notice where these questions take you. How is this different from what you experienced as a victim?

Victim Questions
1. What happened to you?
2. Who wronged you? How?
3. What should they have done?
4. What should they do now to fix it?
5. What punishment do they deserve?

Player Questions
1. What challenge did you face?
2. How did you respond?
3. What did not work?
4. Could you have done something better or with more integrity?
5. Could you have prepared better (to minimize the risk or limit the impact)?
6. Can you do something now to improve the situation?
7. What lesson can you learn from the experience?

Kofman is careful to point out that the feelings that show up when we are victims are real for us. This exercise, then, is not about invalidating your experience. It is, however, a pointed invitation to accept your feelings and then stand back from them so that you (your values, your intentions, your aspirations), and not your reactions, can steer your course.

Photo by Herald Post via Flickr