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!
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.
Here are 10 learnings from me and my clients regarding failure:
- Failure is an event. It does not define me.
- Being a leader means trying many things. Failing is at the core of innovation.
- Learning to say ‘I am learning and am not YET good at ….’
- It is ok to not know, and to say it freely. You can be a dignified beginner.
- Hold a beginner’s mind – it helps experienced leaders take first steps in some domains.
- Hold care and compassion for oneself during failure.
- Do not stop or freeze. Breathe and take next steps however small.
- Trust in my ability to learn and find a good teacher, coach, or a mentor.
- Scaffold yourself and grease the path for ease.
- Learn to play with the ‘new’- it can be a great way to upskill.
Will some of these 10 help you?
What image of failure are you now willing to hold and embrace?
Do let me know.