Recently a friend asked me to recommend him resources on failure.
I told him to check out my favourite podcast ‘How to Fail’ with Elizabeth Day, where famous people share their 3 biggest failures and what they learned from them.
I then said, flippantly, ‘although to be honest I’m not the best person to talk to about failure — I’m really bad at it!’
He challenged me: ‘I absolutely disagree. I think you’re one of the most resilient people I know. You’ve dealt with failure after failure in your business and always bounced back.’
I realised we were talking about two different responses to failure: the immediate reaction, and what you do once you’ve processed that.
In the past I’d have said I’m really good at the 2nd, and terrible at the 1st.
This is how I see the Failure Trajectory…
There are two distinct stages when responding to failure.
- FEELING THE FAILURE
2. THEN, MOVING ON TO THE LEARNINGS.
When something doesn’t go to plan it is naturally disappointing. As a feeler I have a very strong reaction in the moment to a perceived failure. I beat myself up, I feel stressed; it can be a very visceral response (Stage 1).
But I also know that after a bit of space, I can turn these failures around — the learning becomes a concept or framework, I write a blogpost, or I use it as a teaching in my next workshop — the failure has been alchemised. Further down the line, I might even feel gratitude for the failure — maybe it led me somewhere I wasn’t expecting or the learning was so profound that it was worth going through (Stage 2).
Bypassing the emotion
I’ve always felt that I was weak for having such an emotional reaction to failure — our society encourages us to bypass the emotion and catapult straight to the learnings when something goes wrong. And when things invariably turn out for the best, it may be suggested that our initial emotional response was over-the-top.
But what if being ‘’good’’ at failure meant also allowing the emotional process to happen? What if we the integration of the learnings was actually dependent on it?
Feeling it all
I recently ran a new workshop for a big client of mine. It was months of work in the making and I was nervous to deliver it. When I got the feedback that it hadn’t gone as they’d hoped, I was really devastated. It was unclear at this stage whether we were going to continue working together and along with general pandemic instability this was a big blow.
I felt angry and cried. A lot.
I felt it all.
And then after I finished crying. I calmly communicated all of the frustrations I had with my client.
They took the time to respond and acknowledge every point I’d raised individually with compassion, and explanation.
And having been able to share and be acknowledged, the dissipated anger and sadness made space for huge amounts of creative inspiration:
Instead of frustration, I felt excited about the chance to do the workshop again, and curious about why it had failed the first time.
I got really interested in psychological safety and how it has to be different virtually. I wrote for hours on the train brainstorming ideas of how the workshop could be adapted.
But if I had tried to go straight into next steps when I was still upset and angry, it would have been unproductive. My resentment would have blocked my creativity.
We don’t always have to find a silver lining straight away.
We don’t always have to go straight to the radical gratitude for a situation.
We don’t always have to find an ‘at least’, before we’re ready.
Sometimes we can just allow it to feel really shitty and annoying for a while.
And the same goes for supporting others. When friends, family, colleagues tell us of their disappointments and the things that haven’t worked out, be with them in their pain. Notice if they’re still in Stage 1 of processing the failure. Don’t automatically offer up the Stage 2 reassurances if they don’t ask for them. Sometimes a hug, and ‘’that’s really hard’’, is the kindest most loving thing you can do. Because asking people to rush out of their sadness and disappointment is missing a vital stage in turning our failures into gold.
Being resilient does not mean that we skip the feeling part — it means we acknowledge it as part of the process, knowing the more we reject it the more it is going to persist us and sabotage us, further down the line.
So when you experience disappointment, give yourself the space to be in that, the way you would a child who had just lost a competition, or ruined a favourite toy by dropping it in mud, or been knocked over. You give them a hug, let them feel sad. And later you help them see that it’s not all bad. But in that moment it’s just a bit rubbish.
They are not being interviewed in the moment!
We can listen to the podcast guests on ‘How to Fail’ and marvel at how at peace they now are about their failures. But Elizabeth Day is not interviewing them in the moment that these failures happen. It is YEARS later that they have the hindsight to see what they learned from it and where it led them. Or the distance to see it through a lense of loving humour.
And if there are failures in your life that still have power over you — that still feel strong and make you feel rage, chances are you jumped straight to the learnings without feeling them.
So can you allow yourself to experience feel-ure?
Things to try:
Go for a walk and stomp it all out in the autumn leaves
Write an angry or funny poem about why you felt like a failure
Find a song that matches your mood about the failure and belt it out in the shower
Journal 3 pages of stream of consciousness writing everything you want to say about the failure in question