The need to embrace failure is a statement made so often that it borders on being trite. Failure is praised as the basis of learning. We are encouraged to fail faster. We are admonished that if we aren’t failing then we aren’t stretching ourselves sufficiently. Failing is touted as being a very good thing.
There is just one problem. We don’t actually like failure. We can intellectualize the value of failure as a basis of learning and development. We can rationalize the likelihood that into every life some failure must fall. When it comes to dealing with failure, however, the actual experience of it is neither welcome nor sought.
You might think that wouldn’t be the case, given that we are conditioned to focus on the negative. If failure is a negative experience, then why don’t we attend to it? Our negative orientation is an outward view. Our tendency is to look for problems around us, to assume the worst, and to take a defensive stance in most situations.
Our emphasis on the negative doesn’t necessarily extend to our internal experience, however. We don’t like to personally experience negative situations. Failure would certainly rank as one of those things we avoid. This is why our internal radar is so finely attuned to threats; our brains have evolved to helpfully ensure that as much as possible, we steer clear of uncomfortable and unpleasant situations, and to avoid painful occurrences.
That creates a problem. For all that failure might be a useful trigger for learning, for reflection and for creation, experiencing it is not fun. Rather than seeking these situations out, our brains are wired to steer us firmly and quickly in the other direction. Instead of embracing and encouraging the opportunity, we deliberately avoid the painful experience that leads there. Not only does this happen on a entirely predictable basis, our inner selves are pretty confident that doing so is an awesome outcome and a job well done.
To the extent that you are trying to stretch situations and yourself, to take risks and push boundaries, you are setting yourself in direct opposition to a survival instinct that has been honed and refined for millennia. For all that you may think you want to do the thing, your subconscious is going to be essentially hostile to doing the thing. Conscious intention notwithstanding, your core instincts are decidedly in favour of avoiding the pain of failure. In this particular showdown, there is every likelihood that they are going to win.
This is one of the essential motives for procrastination. To the extent that you have ever been theoretically driven to accomplish something, and yet managed to avoid moving it forward for an extended period of time, your brain was helpfully engineering avoidance on a massive scale. For all that you might have felt passionate about what you were doing, your brain felt fear. Whether your goal was writing a book, finishing a dissertation, learning an instrument, producing a piece of art or building a workshop, the work was big enough that your brain saw a chance of failure. As a consequence, it helpfully steered you away from getting started, on the true but ultimately unhelpful premise that you can’t fail what you don’t begin.
Perfectionism has a role to play here as well. As we explored, the perfectionist instinct is very often not a quest for exceptional so much as it is an intolerance for mistakes and errors. While perfectionism does manifest itself as an obsessive drive to deliver exceptionally and avoid opportunities to find fault, that’s the case only for those things that actually get taken on. The downside of perfectionism is that it will avoid pursuing opportunities where excellence isn’t possible. Rather than risking the delivery of something inferior, the perfectionist resists engaging in enterprises where they might be found wanting.
This avoidance isn’t necessarily active, conscious or deliberate. Sometimes it is, of course; you may lash out in frustration, get angry with your inability to perform, and deliberately walk away. In a lot of instances, though, we find subtle reasons to let go, to put off, to forget or to outright abandon things that are hard or have a possibility of failure.
There was a time, for example, when I aspired to play golf. To say I was not good would be an understatement. I also wasn’t prepared to put in the work to get good. So I let it drift. I stopped playing, and found other interests. I’ve since come to terms with the fact that I’m not good at golf, that I won’t be good at golf, but that it can still be an enjoyable way to spend a day with people that I like. So rather than fearing failure, I’ve come to accept that others around me will usually play a far superior game to myself, and my score might get close to 100 but is unlikely to go below.
Recreational pursuits are one thing, and while golf might be an example that resonates for some, it is not a pastime that is central to my ego. As such, it’s not something I’m particularly anxious about doing well (and that I’m perfectly comfortable confessing to here). Fear of failure in a work context can be a profoundly more sensitive issue, and avoidance of circumstances where we might potentially fail can have significant repercussions.
It is in our work lives—what we do for our organizations and for ourselves—that we most need to be taking risks and at least be open to the idea that failure is a possibility. In project management, for example, project failures—whether not hitting targets or outright not delivering—still run close to 70%. While that is a horrific statistic, it isn’t new and it hasn’t changed much over the years. Strategy is an equally imprecise exercise; some goals and objectives will pay off handsomely, while others will struggle to gain traction. Failure isn’t just possible, it’s inevitable. Personally, we will have work that succeeds and work that struggles—or that we struggle with. If we want to succeed, we need to show up and put in the effort; avoiding action for fear of failure is not a good look, and it is not a productive approach.
This is where the intersection of our personal attitudes towards failure and the work that we do collide in a particularly horrendous fashion. I have conducted numerous audits and assessments—and facilitated a significant number of planning exercises—where my advice and guidance has been that failure has to be not just accepted but encouraged, if bold strides and significant outcomes are to be realized. That is easy to say, but it is extremely hard to do. I have personally witnessed executives nod their heads in intellectual acknowledgement, even while their behaviour and actions clearly demonstrate that failure is unacceptable and not to be tolerated.
Allowing for failure—and actively embracing it—involves working against significant evolutionary bias in how we think and make decisions. It means getting our minds to accept and allow for our experiencing of pain and challenge, rather than simply avoiding them. We need to let go of perfectionist instincts and obsession with right—or more particularly avoidance of wrong—and not just acknowledge but viscerally allow for mistakes being made. Furthermore, we need to recognize that mistakes aren’t just a byproduct of doing things that are risky, difficult or complicated, but that they are an essential part of learning and growth. In this context, mistakes are to be encouraged and rewarded, not simply tolerated.
That is a difficult transition to make. I still struggle with tackling things that I know will be complicated and difficult. This is true not just when I know I am facing something that I’ve not done before, but even when I’m dealing with a situation where I’ve previously been successful. I’ve done it before, so I should be able to unquestionably do it again. Regardless, the instinctual voice that says it will be hard and imprecise kicks in; it is once again the evolutionary influence appearing, trying to avoid pain and discomfort.
There is one incredibly important thing to keep in mind in addressing and responding to this voice. There are absolutely circumstances and situations where the avoidance response is triggered by a fear of failure, of unpleasantness, of wading into the messy and difficult work of doing the thing—whatever that thing might actually be. It is not simply a fear of failure, though; it can also be a fear of success. Sometimes what we are most avoiding is the anxiety that we will reach our goal and attain the outcome we are striving for.
You might think that being successful would be a good thing. Certainly it can be, in the right circumstances; that is why we’ve set the goal for ourselves in the future. We want it, we aspire to it and we have the ambition to realize it. At the same time, attaining the goal has consequences. It represents change, including changing our perception of our abilities and talents. It involves accepting that we can be successful and realize our goals, which also means acknowledging that not doing so is an excuse we hide behind. It requires coming to terms with the fact that if we want something and work hard enough towards it, we can realize the outcome. Most importantly, it involves letting go of all of the excuses that we have hidden behind, and all of the comfort that those excuses have allowed us to indulge in.
Embracing the possibility of failure is not just about intellectually acknowledging it exists. We may rationally accept the need to embrace failure, and ye our inner brain continues to set us up for comfort and avoidance instead. This is a normal human response, and it happens to us all.
You also aren’t going to be able to negotiate a tolerance for failure. This is not something you can make a rational argument about, because the response is inherently irrational—or, more specifically, emotional. This isn’t about reason and logic, it is about comfort. Your inner voice is trying to protect you. Making a lucid, clear-headed case for why failure is important isn’t going to carry much sway. The voice isn’t going away, and it isn’t going to give up its attempt to look after you in the way it best knows how (misguided though that might be).
Instead, you need to recognize that the resistance to failure—and potentially to success—is there, that it will always be there, and that it is trying to be helpful. Listen to what the voice has to say. Engage in curiosity about what the issues and concerns are, and why you are experiencing them. Get specific about what the feeling means for you, and try to understand what is driving it. With that level of understanding, you can also identify what you can do to move forward in a direction that makes sense for you.
A useful exercise when confronting a situation is to consider the worst possible outcome. That’s an important set point, because while it is in the realm of possibility, it’s also not very likely. Most outcomes are better than that, and some are significantly more favourable. If you can live with—or figure out how to come to terms with the worst possible result, then you go a long way towards addressing the concerns and accepting the outcomes that your brain is trying to avoid.
Finally, know that this is going to be an on-going tension. Just because you make progress today doesn’t mean that the resistance will magically dissipate tomorrow. Your brain has been at this a long time, and evolution has been honing its response for even longer. Continue to engage in curiousity, acceptance and moving forward in ways that are possible. Find ways to embrace the challenges continue forward. Keep striving in a positive and relevant direction, but also listen to how the voice is reacting to that. There is fear there, but there is wisdom also.