What image of failure do you connect to?

  • A wall to break.
  • A bump in the road. 
  • A judgement book to sit with.
  • A set of balls to play with.

What we chose defines our narrative of failure that we live with.

  • A wall is to break down.
  • A bump is to move over gently.
  • A judgement book is to feel guilty with.
  • A set of balls is to juggle and get skilled with. 

Some of us have a broken narrative on failure, because we: 

  • Were judged, or punished. 
  • Grew up in an environment of high expectations. 
  • Have grown the muscle of fear and passivity.
  • Have learnt to hide and justify it to ourselves
  • Feel a sense of shame and smallness. 
  • Have a fragile self esteem, and we have to show the world only a happy face.
  • Think ‘what will others think of me?’

All the reasons above do not value the fact that you are a human being who is growing, changing, learning and knows it all! Read on to understand how we can embrace failure and make it a part of our learning process.

My story of failure:

I first failed in Grade 7. ½ a mark lesser to pass in my Marathi exams. I felt ashamed as my mum was a teacher in the same school. I remember feeling so small and rotten also because academic excellence was a big deal in my family. I was tutored and managed to do decent scores going forward. 

Through college and my Masters, I did very well and was almost always in the top of my class and specialisation. My big setback came at 36, when I did not clear my psychotherapy written exams.  My exam came back with 2 pages of comments and feedback. The shame came back. I froze. I thought of myself as incompetent, not good enough and poor at writing. I was invited to incorporate changes to my written exam and send it back for evaluation. It took me a whole 1 year to get back to doing it. In that one year I was facing the monsters in my mind. I lost motivation as I was seeing this failure as a wall so high that I could not scale it. 

When I did decide to work on it again I did the following:

  • Leaned into a network of help- supervisors, mentors, and peers.
  • Created an accountability partnership with 1 peer.
  • Maintained a structure of study, practice, and writing for a few months.
  • Did my own therapy, and gave myself plenty of affirmations to keep my energy high.
  • Shifted my view on failure to seeing it as a road bump that I was gently going to go over.

This experience in my adult life was a great lesson on redefining failure as a setback. As a coach, I am often with leaders who fail and make errors of many kinds. Some take it as a setback and move ahead while others freeze, just like I did. My experience supports me in empathising with them, and also in challenging their views on failure. Through coaching we shift the observer that we are. We take on a new lens, a new narrative, and explore new options to look at an experience like failure and learn to embrace failure.

Here are 10 learnings from me and my clients regarding failure: 

  1. Failure is an event. It does not define me.
  2. Being a leader means trying many things. Failing is at the core of innovation.
  3. Learning to say ‘I am learning and am not YET good at ….’
  4. It is ok to not know, and to say it freely. You can be a dignified beginner.
  5. Hold a beginner’s mind – it helps experienced leaders take first steps in some domains.
  6. Hold care and compassion for oneself during failure. 
  7. Do not stop or freeze. Breathe and take next steps however small.
  8. Trust in my ability to learn and find a good teacher, coach, or a mentor.
  9. Scaffold yourself and grease the path for ease.
  10. Learn to play with the ‘new’- it can be a great way to upskill.

Will some of these 10 help you to embrace failure and turn it into lessons?

What image of failure are you now willing to hold and embrace?
Do let me know.

Sailaja Manacha

Sailaja Manacha

Sailaja Manacha, a Master certified Coach from ICF, is known for her programs and coaching methods that combine psychology with leadership practices. In her work, Sailaja draws from Psychology, Ontology, NLP and Spiritual frameworks as well as rich, real-world experiences.

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