Getting great at failing is hard when you are surrounded by people who are quick to boast about their successful projects. Rarely do you hear about projects failing, especially those of successful individuals. But we need to be talking more about them, so we can all learn from each other.
Our CEO, is one of the few, who openly discusses his many project failures. He held a lectures in start-up center discussing his failed project, with a view of helping others, amateurs and veteran entrepreneurs alike.
He speaks openly and describes some of the failed projects he has experienced in detail, and explains what he has learned from them, and how he has moved forward with the new information.
After this lecture, I was left with a take home message, which is,
“The only way to overcome a fear of failure, is to face the fact that you might fail”.
Sometimes, well often, things don’t go as planned. You’re wired to value success and want more of it. You dread and despise failure. But failing is not all bad.
Our need to survive is our motivation to hate failure. Many of us believe that we wouldn’t be able to survive the situation we are dreading. The thought of standing on stage, with 200 people watching, causes enough fear to engage our fight or flight response. Naturally the fear of messing up on stage is so bad, walking away and avoiding the ‘failure’ would be better.
But surely it would be worth giving it a go and seeing what happens?
I claim that things like failing at big projects, embarrassing yourself on stage or getting rejected are great! No, I am not crazy. And no, this is not one of those overly optimistic views on life.
It’s understandable that we see these experiences as bad because they cause discomfort to us.
They can physically and mentally hurt us. They could bring great shame too. All these things are unpleasant. And although it’s incredibly likely that you’ll never feel 100% comfortable with anything that could end in failure, there are things you can learn to accept that failing isn’t the end.
So, how do you get great at failing?
1. Value frustration tolerance
Frustration tolerance is, learning that you can withstand and overcome the difficulties that a fearful event may present to you.
When a person is scared, they are preoccupied with the cause of their fear. They might feel that the situation is unsurvivable. They might have even developed an inner speech telling them, “It is awful for me to fail at anything”. These fears of failure are likely to lead to a catastrophe.“ I can’t stand to fail at anything!”
Failing, can help you learn that you can actually manage your fears of failing.
For example, being on stage and talking can seem terrifying. (It’s even more terrifying than life-threatening situations to some). But if you get on the stage, even if you are terrible at it, and you encourage yourself to do it 30 times in a year, on the 31st attempt you’ll be feeling a lot better than on your 1st go. The more you do, the more at ease you’ll feel.
Why is this?
When you put yourself into a fearful situation, you learn that if you don’t run away, you’ll be able to overcome these fears in time. It won’t be an overnight success, but you know that even if things didn’t go perfect, life outside still carried on and nothing horrible happened.
What you can learn from failure?
- You can learn that you can survive and overcome the negative feelings.
- You can learn techniques for dealing with your fears of failure. For example, you know you can practice your performance before going on stage, or you can ask someone for guidance.
- By decreasing your fears of failure, you become calmer and more capable, which ultimately provides you with a much needed confidence boost.
- Your brain chemicals will also alter as you learn from your fear. You’ll get a much better batch of the ‘nicer’ chemicals released, instead of a surge of cortisol which causes stress.
- But most importantly you won’t avoid other opportunities because of your fears. It’s better to start a project rather than avoiding it! It might just be the best thing you ever did.
Fear shouldn’t be feared! You can use your old experiences of failure to calm yourself down by thinking, “Okay I might not be amazing and things could go wrong, it could be unpleasant for me, but I managed to survive it before, so I know I will survive it this time”.
2. Leave your ‘genius brain’ behind
“More intelligent people usually advance quicker in life”. Is an inaccurate portrayal of life.
People think that those who are more intelligent are better at everything, better grades, great at problem solving and never fail. But this isn’t true. In some cases being smart can cause more issues, and can make you less accepting of failure. Why? Because they’ve never learnt anything different in life.
Take my friend Mark for example, he was always the smartest kid in the class. Everyone knew he was going places and teachers and parents complimented him. Their colossal error was continuously telling Mark how smart he was and that he was a genius.
The error – he was complimented on his hard work and no time was invested in teaching him to solve problems like failure, because they never occurred. Mark was given a false view of life, one where everything was seen through rose-tinted lenses.
When he started to face tasks in later life, that were actually difficult, he didn’t know what to do. He panicked, because he had never experienced failing.
Mark grew up thinking that intelligence was a fixed thing. That this ‘intelligence’ would flow through all aspects of his life, but it didn’t. So, when failure struck him it was paralysing.
On the other hand, Daniel (another friend), knew a lot about math but wasn’t the quickest at figuring out problems. When it came to solving problems, he would spend a lot of time working out the issues, and would try and come up with good solutions.
Although it was a much slower process, in doing this Daniel learnt the greatest skill of all, persistence. When he gets hard tasks, he persists with them until he physically can’t do anymore with them. In life, when issues come up, for him it isn’t a problem. He sits, observes and thinks up a solution, because the answers never came easy to him when he was young, unlike Mark who had all the answers at school.
This is why some, not all, intelligent children have trouble learning about failure. Because they have experienced immediate success in school, they have not learnt to persist with troubling tasks to find solutions. Meaning when tasks get hard and fail in later life, they are often a little lost, as the required problem solving skills have not been fully developed.
Not developing a failure routine’, where they go through the motions, emotions and come to a solution on how to fix a failure, can sometimes make them feel silly and less intelligent. This can be quite upsetting and it does seep into other areas of life, particularly confidence.
Because these intelligent individuals view their intelligence as fixed, failures are a reflection of their ‘lack of intelligence’, rather than the fact they haven’t been exposed to it and learnt from it.
Generally, if they fail they blame circumstances or other people.
Don’t expect things to go well just because you have intelligence at hand. Use failure as an opportunity to learn about your strengths and weaknesses. Seek help or invest time in studying techniques on coping with failure.
3. Don’t beat yourself up
Getting great at failing is learning that it’s not always going to happen. You shouldn’t put yourself down because of a failure!
People with low self-esteem might think they are failing because they are a failure. This is a lot of weight to carry on one’s shoulders, when there isn’t any need to worry.
People need to know that, “You are doing the best you can. And other people mess up things too.”
Life is full of twists and things don’t go as planned. Therefore, it is important to avoid attributing failure to an innate, unchangeable and uncontrollable characteristic (like a personality trait). Instead, we should all try analyzing the situation objectively and ask, “What went wrong?”, “What can I change?” and “What can I keep in mind for future endeavours?” to ensure that we all get great at dealing with failure!
4. Learn from it
Things don’t just go wrong on a whim, there are loads of reasons why failures occur – and it doesn’t have to be you personally. So ask yourself these questions to get great at failing!
What went wrong?
Why did it go this way?
Was the timing bad?
What do the statistics say?
Do I need to learn more?
Are there skills I am lacking?
Can I get help from someone?
Recognize your weaknesses. Determine what did work and why.
Not all aspects of your work will be a failure, there will be several positives. But the one thing you need to do is stick around and go through it all. The worst thing you can do after a failure is to brush it off and run away from it.
Not acknowledging it happened, means you will lose a valuable opportunity to learn from it, you might end up making the same mistakes in the future, and you lose potential insights into future issues.
5. Avoid the trap of escalating commitment
Escalating commitment is, when you receive constant negative feedback from a decision, action, or investment and you still continue to invest, even though you’re not going anywhere.
You feel that because you spent so much time, and invested so much energy into your action, quitting now would be a complete waste of your time (like an insult to you). You find it hard to let go, even though the ship is obviously sinking! In the end you invest even more energy and resources into the action hoping things will turn around.
Pulling the plug is not always the most obvious answer. It can be quite upsetting accepting that you were wrong. But continuing might have greater repercussions than leaving it all behind you.
Not sure if you are a victim of escalating commitment?
- Try finding an objective person to help you.
- Take a good look at the numbers.
- Don’t be afraid to put everything on paper.
- Think about the good and bad sides of quitting, and the good and bad sides of carrying on.
Maybe you have some other ideas that would benefit from your time. Resources and knowledge you gained by leaving the failing project can be taken on to a new venture. One that would be successful, because you have accepted your failure.