What new relationship would you like to have with failure? I have been having a few conversations about failure recently with my daughters. One of them in particular takes failure hard. This week I went into her room to find bits of screwed-up paper all over the floor. She was sobbing whilst drawing a shape on a piece of paper, simultaneously watching a tutorial on YouTube. I asked what was wrong, she said she couldn't do it. I said I thought she'd done a good job, she said it was better than the others, “which were definitely failures. “
Reframing our failures
I know that feeling. There have been times in the past when I got caught up with failure and played the victim. But over the years I have been learning to reframe failure, not as a bad thing but as something we can learn from, even seeing our mistakes as positives.
As I spoke with my daughter about her drawings I suggested that even though she hadn't been happy with her first attempts, they had taught her something each time. Without those attempts, she wouldn't have known what to correct.
Now, this seems simplistic right? It's likely that you already understand this idea. I know I do and yet, when it comes to my own "failures" I can't seem to find the same clarity in the moment. In fact, all it takes is a few setbacks and I’m setting myself up to be disappointed in my own attempts.
So often, we blame ourselves for our supposed failures without thinking about where we get our ideas about success and failure. The concept of failure hints that there is a right and wrong way to exist. We feel failure when we do not live up to expectations of what “should” be. But those expectations are often dictated by society, and, depending on where you are in the social hierarchy depends on how attainable those expectations are.
So how do we navigate society’s messages about success and failure while trying to live authentically and with meaning? How do we begin to develop our own understanding of success and failure? Let me ask you some questions:
What makes YOU feel successful?
From a young age, we receive feedback that we interpret as positive or negative. I catch myself saying ‘good girl’ to my daughter(s) far too frequently! But this follows us through school and into work. We are given objectives, appraisals, tests etc and we receive information from others on our performance.
However, there are spaces in our lives where we make our own choices on how we feel. When and where in your life do you feel a sense of accomplishment? It’s also important to consider the opposite, when and where do you not feel good enough? What is happening that contributes to these feelings?
This isn't an exercise to judge your feelings but to understand yourself better. This awareness can help you identify where you are right now with your relationship with failure.
When do you most commonly feel failure?
A reminder that this isn’t an opportunity to give yourself a hard time but to see if there are any commonalities in your life when you feel failure more acutely. For me, I feel most vulnerable to failure when I am trying something new, something outside my comfort zones.
Where is your failure rooted?
My own idea of failure comes from a fear of rejection. At the core of my idea that I might fail is that I am not good enough. At some point in my life I developed the belief that if I am not good enough, I will be rejected.
These thoughts and beliefs are only thoughts and beliefs - there is no truth in them other than the truth I believe them to have. These thoughts help us understand some of our feelings around failure but they are not the truth.
These beliefs are rooted in the information we get from others; from the material we read, watch and hear. They come from our experiences and those we have seen. They are part of the story but not the whole story.
Other parts of the story include our attributes i.e. our strengths and passions; our environment and our identities i.e. our culture, values and beliefs.
A shift into growth and collaboration
Across the globe, we value being busy and self-sufficient (aka not asking for help!) and this influences our understanding of failure. In fact, even when choosing a picture to go alongside this article I found pictures that said ‘work harder’! But, what if, instead, we value growth and collaboration? I feel like there is a shift going on right now, as we learn more about growth mindset and increase our own self-awareness.
I completely subscribe to the idea that life is better when we share our knowledge and learn from each other - instead of believing that we aren’t enough because we can’t do something on our own. I mean, I say I subscribe to the idea, but I don’t always remember it when I am feeling ashamed or disappointed in myself, and yet, I still believe it to be true.
The risk of failure
When we put ourselves out into the world we are vulnerable. We run a chance of failing and falling short of our goal. But we also open ourselves up to new experiences, opportunities for growth and a chance to learn something new about ourselves. What then if we observe that failure allows us the freedom and space to experience something new. It also gives permission to others to do the same.
What are your values and goals?
This journey into understanding what you consider to be a failure or a success is unique to you. It’s important that you put this all in context with your own values and goals. With that in mind, here are some questions you can ask yourself when you are feeling a sense of failure:
- In what ways did I take a chance or a risk?
- What did I learn about myself? How can that be helpful in my life?
- What did I learn about others? How can that be helpful in my life?
- How is the environment and culture that I am in affecting my perspective on this?
- What do I value and how can I see this experience aligning with my values?
These questions aren’t easy to answer. Take your time, and focus on what you think and how you feel. There may be some uncomfortable feelings that arise - that’s OK, acknowledge them. I have found that journaling my feelings helps me get them out of my head (something I also encourage with my daughters). You might find a different option that works best for you. Whatever you decide, you have a choice on how you work through these feelings. Your failures do not define you, but rather, how you relate to and understand them does.
"I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work." - Thomas Edison