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Tanya Dalton quote on success and failure
October 31, 2017   |   Episode #:

042: How To Fail Successfully

In This Episode:

Fear of failure can feel overwhelming and scary, so today I want to share with you how we can ‘fail’ successfully. As you’re navigating the path towards your dreams and goals, you may hit some bumps along the way. It’s important to know how to shift your mindset and pick yourself back up when you’ve fallen down. I’m giving you my best advice & tips on how we can do this, along with examples of how other big names and companies have taken action… instead of staying stuck.

Show Transcript:

The Big Idea

We see failure in others as resilience; we see failure in ourselves as simply failing.

Questions I Answer

  • How can I recover from a big failure?
  • How can I get back on track with my goals?
  • What steps can I take to accomplish my goals?

Actions to Take

  • Reflect and learn from your failures. Shift your mindset and your path so that you’re able to get back up and take action instead of staying down.
  • Keep a few of these tips from today’s episode in your planner or notebook as quick reminders when you need them.

Key Topics in the Show

  • Navigating your path toward a goal and understanding the opportunities it gives.

  • Elizabeth Gilbert’s story of how success can be just as blinding as failure.

  • How to let your North Star guide you to where you truly want to go.

  • Examples of how other people and companies have failed and picked themselves back up.

  • Ways you can reflect & learn from failures, and take action instead of staying stuck.

Resources and Links

  • Listen to my newest Week Ender episode this Friday on iTunes… I’m talking about No-Stress November… a personal story and new challenge and tips for the upcoming month.
  • The Resilience Project – from Stanford University, showing awareness of ‘failure deprived’ students.
Show Transcript

Welcome to Productivity Paradox from inkWELL Press, a podcast focused on  finding true fulfillment and happiness through the power of productivity. To get your  free checklist, Five Minutes to Peak Productivity, simply sign up at inkwellpress.com/ podcast. And now, here’s your host, Tanya Dalton. 

Welcome to Productivity Paradox. I’m your host, Tanya Dalton, owner of Inkwell  Press, and this is Episode 42. Today, we are continuing talking about our stumbling  blocks on our journey to our big dreams and goals, so today we are talking about  how to fail successfully. But before I get started, I want to give a quick shout out to  our sponsor of today’s episode.  

 Are you looking for a way to streamline your finances? Fresh Books has you  covered. Packed with powerful features, it takes the stress out of running your own  business. Fresh Books is offering a free, 30 day, unrestricted trial to my listeners. I’ll  

be sharing all the details later on in the episode, but for right now, I want to talk  about how to fail successfully.  

 Failure is one of our biggest fears. This last week, we talked a lot about fears.  Why is failure our biggest one? Well, no one really wants to fail. No one goes out  there with an idea or a dream and thinks, “You know what? It would be really great if  I’d fail because I’d really learn a lot from that. Boy, it would really help me out.” Of  course, we all dread failure but here’s the truth: there isn’t a single success story that I  can think of, including my own, that doesn’t include life altering adversity. J.K.  Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, has been quoted as saying, “Rock bottom  became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.” She received more rejection  letters than is imaginable, and now she’s laughing all the way to Gringott’s with her  success.  

 Why do we often give in to this fear of failure? Well, the fear of failure is a  defense mechanism in your mind, a reaction developed to protect you from  perceived threats. This part of our brain developed to protect us from the physical  threat of predators. We didn’t, after all, want to fail at living. We wanted to survive.  But this part of our brain still activates when we want to take a risk or do something  outside of our normal comfort zone. That ultimately holds us back and limits us.  Honestly, our threat system isn’t really very good at distinguishing between real,  physical threats, and perceived risks. We talked about this last week in Episode 41,  which was all about fear. Failure is usually the biggest one, because don’t we all want  success? When you push outside your perceived comfort zone, this threat system  signals perceived risk and unfamiliarity, ultimately giving you a sense of fear. This risk  is no longer about physical safety. It’s emotional safety and security.  

 Pushing and stretching your comfort zone in little ways can reset those  boundaries and it helps make you incrementally more comfortable with, well,  discomfort. Discomfort is what we feel when we go for these risks. We’ve all heard  that quote that comes with redefining failure: the only true failure is the one you don’t  learn from. The reason why it’s around is because it’s true. Really, it’s okay to fail  

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because you can learn from this and grow. In Silicon Valley the saying is: fail fast, fail  forward. That’s because if tech isn’t evolving and isn’t consistently taking risks, then  it’s slowly dying.  

 We have to counter fear with competence. You have to accept that the world  isn’t conspiring for your failure. Often, when you act with confidence, the world will  conspire to support you. Remember the advice from last episode, Episode 41, to fake  it until you become it? That applies here. You have to keep moving forward until  suddenly you aren’t faking it anymore. You have become what you have been striving  to be. But how do you fight failure? It’s the same as what I say with any goal: take  incremental action. Think of Mount Everest. It’s giant, stormy, it’s utterly inhospitable,  not to mention the 50 degree below zero weather. And yet, a good handful of  climbers summit every year. Not all of them are even professional climbers or elite  athletes. A lot of them are hobbyists with a dream or a goal, but they all start that  climb with a single step.  

 Those climbers on Everest, though, even though they spend incredible  amounts of time and money preparing, a slim number of them actually make it to the  summit and back. Sometimes it’s just the act of trying that counts. You have to be  open to the idea that you might not achieve your goals. Instead, while you’re on the  path for one goal, another goal might present itself and, in fact, be a better path to  follow. So be open to change and opportunity and shifting your goals in some way if  there’s a better path available.  

 The other day, I was watching the movie Woodlawn with my kids and there  was a quote in the movie that really resonated with me. They said, “Sometimes,  before you can have new dreams in this life, the old ones have to be taken from you.”  That really made me think, because we often get so caught up in our goal that  sometimes we’re blinded to the opportunities that come, not from the goal itself but  from the path that you’re on to that goal. But we think, and we convince ourselves,  that getting off this path means that we have failed, so we stay on it. But getting of  the path doesn’t really mean you failed. It just means your path isn’t straight. And  here’s the catch: the path is never straight. It’s full of twists and turns, and sometimes  these roadblocks are really detours to the life we’re really meant to be living. When  you think about it, failure, not progress, might indicate whether you’re living up to  your potential. If you’re failing, that means you’re pushing yourself instead of saying  in the same comfortable place you’ve always been.  

 You have to learn to embrace failure and get kind of good at it. When you fail,  take a step back and apply what you’ve learned and reset and keep moving forward.  No one else knows what’s right for you. There’s so much advice out there on the  steps to take on your path, and so many sources that say: this is exactly what you  have to do to be successful. But then you try them and they just don’t work for you.  Listen to the parts that are true for you, and disregard what isn’t. You just need to  navigate your path in your own way.  

 Listen, the universe is messy, and if you try to hold on to a specific way of  doing things or where you want to go or what that will look like, you might be  disappointed. Instead, find the opportunities hidden in the mess. Elizabeth Gilbert is a  great example of someone who has found the opportunities in that mess. She’s had a  

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lot of failure in her career as a writer, and there were times when her mailbox was full  of rejection letters every, single day. Every day, she asked herself if she should quit,  but she began to realize that what you need to do is to go home, which to her meant  returning to the work of writing, because for her, writing is her home. She loved  writing more than she hated failing to work at writing, and this means she loved  writing more than she loved her own ego. She turned a failed marriage into a book  called Eat, Pray, Love, which was so successful that it later had Julia Roberts playing  her in a movie. Not such a bad recovery from failure, right?  

 After the unexpected and amazing success of Eat, Pray, Love, she found herself  relating to her past self and she began to realize that we react the same way to  blinding success as we do to the dark pit of failure. We get blinded. We get blinded  by success just as much as we do failure. In fact, after Eat, Pray, Love, she published  another book and it bombed, which is interesting because she says it was fine for her  because it broke her out of the spell of blinding success and it helped her rediscover  her home of writing for the sheer devotion of it. Later on, she wrote and published  another book, Big Magic, which has been very successful, and that’s great, but not  the point. The point is, she’s writing another book now and she’ll write another one  after that and another one after that and another one, and so on. Some of them will  fail and some of them will succeed, but she says: “I will always be safe from the  random hurricanes of outcome as long as I never forget where I rightfully live.”  

 The only trick is, you’ve got to identify the best, worthiest thing that you love  most, and then build your house right on top of it and don’t budge from it. To me, this  is similar to what I often talk about: finding your passion, your purpose, and sticking  to it and allowing that to always be your North Star. That allows you the fluidity of  leaving your path, but you’re still guided by the foundation of your personal “why”.  That’s the thing. As I mentioned earlier, your path is going to change. There is going  to be little detours and different routes off of your path. But if you have your home,  or what I call your North Star, it’s going to continue to guide you to where it is you  truly want to go. With that comes the safety to feel like it’s okay to fail. That’s key,  because too often we feel like we cannot fail, we should not fail, that failure is  something we can not recover from.  

 Throughout history, I don’t know if there has ever been a time when failure has  ever been fully embraced, but I do know there is a kind of epidemic in the modern  world where failure feels like it’s absolutely not an option. It has become such an  issue that universities are now engaging in a kind of remedial education in what it  means to fail. Several colleges have started these initiatives to teach students that  failure is okay. Smith College has a new initiative called Failing Well with aims for de stigmatizing failure. They host workshops on Imposter Syndrome, they host  discussions on perfectionism, and they have a campaign to remind students that 64%  of their peers will get a B- or lower. There is so much pressure to make straight A’s  and to always do everything well. We have to remind each other that it’s okay to not  be perfect. In fact, during fall orientation and again during the final exam time, the  campus hub at Smith projects the worst failures of their peers on a large screen. One  student revealed on the screen, “I failed my first college writing exam.” A popular  English professor wrote, “I failed out of college sophomore year. Flat out, whole  semester of F’s on the transcript, bombed out, washed out, flunked out.”  

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 I like this message of telling people it’s okay because look how well they’re  doing now. This is a popular English professor who failed out of school but he was  able to recover. I think part of the issue is that many of these students have had to  have near-perfect transcripts in order to get into a school like Smith, so failure can be  an un-familiar experience. So, they try to teach that failure is not a bug of learning, it’s  a feature of learning. Rachel Simmons, a leadership developmental specialist in their  Center for Work and Life, says that that kind of failure that students couldn’t handle  wasn’t major, like flunking out. It was students showing up at the counseling center  distraught and inconsolable because they got less than an A- or they were rejected  from a club. These students were unable to ask for help when they needed it, or they  became so afraid of failure they avoided taking risks altogether.  

 Another outstanding school, Stanford, has coined the term “failure deprived”  to describe the struggles they’re observing with some of their students. The idea that  students that were outstanding on paper seemed to be unable to cope with simple  struggles, so they started an initiative called The Resilience Project, where videos  were made of prominent alumni talking about their academic setback in an attempt  to normalize the struggle. Harvard has a similar success failure project featuring  stories of rejection. In 2010, after a wave of student suicides in Cornell, they declared  that it would be an obligation of the University to help students learn life skills,  including failure. At the University of Pennsylvania, there’s a program called Penn  Faces, which is actually a jab at a term that students use to describe those people  who have mastered the art of appearing happy even when struggling. Emily Hovan, a  graduate who helped to start the project in her junior year, says, “There’s a kind of  expectation of students at a lot of these schools to be succeeding on every level:  academically, socially, romantically, in our family lives, in our friendships, and also  sleep eight hours at night, look great, work out, post all about it on social media. We  wanted to show that life isn’t all that perfect.”  

 There is so much pressure to do it all and to be it all and to do it all amazingly  well. We talked about this before, in Episode 14, when we talked about the fear of  missing out. The widespread use of social media doesn’t really help because, while  logically we know no one goes through life without screwing up, it can be really easy  to convince ourselves by looking in the news feeds that everyone but you is living a  perfect life. No one is living a perfect life. We all have failures. Even big companies  that you might think are exempt from failure have had some pretty notable failures.  

 Colgate toothpaste tried to cash in on the 1980’s frozen dinner surge with  Colgate beef lasagna. But then they found that people didn’t really want to buy a  frozen dinner from the same brand that they bought their toothpaste from. Harley  Davidson thought people wanted to smell like leathery motorcycles, so they released  the flop called Hot Road Perfume. Coca-Cola released a coffee flavored Coke drink  called Coca-Cola Black that was only sold for two years. These are actually all parts  of a display at a museum of failure in Sweden. This exhibit of failure is there to  encourage a culture that respects, rather than derides or ignores, failure. The creator  of the exhibit, Samuel West, knows that learning is the only process that turns failure  into success.  

 But here’s the big takeaway, in my opinion. It’s pretty amazing to see these big  companies with big names that we respect with products that have failed. And yet,  

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we don’t consider the company itself to be a failure. Yes, they tried something new  and different. It didn’t work out, but they kept moving forward. We don’t look at them  and define them by that failure. We look at all of the things they have created and we  tend to forget about the failures. We look at the failures in ourself, but not so much in  others. So the question is, can we really learn from failure? I want to talk about that,  but first I want to give a quick shout-out from our sponsor.  

 As I mentioned in the beginning of this episode, this has been brought to you  by Fresh Books. I’m picky when it comes to sponsors – you’ve heard me say that  before – but I’m really happy to be talking to you about Fresh Books because I really  love how their software helps boost your productivity. They make it easier to focus on  what you really love about your business and not spend time chasing down invoices  from your clients. It has a really simple interface, so it’s almost like having a personal  finance assistant to help you know where to start. Just a few clicks, and you can keep  your finances in check. Easy, easy. I love that.  

 Fresh Books has generously offered a free, unrestricted trial for my listeners.  Just go to freshbooks.com/paradox, and in the section that says “How did you find  us”, type in Productivity Paradox and they’ll make sure and set you up.  

 I want to wrap up here in just a second, but first I want to talk about learning  from our failure. We talked about this at the beginning of the show, that we’ve heard  the quotes, we’ve heard about how we have to learn from it. But is that really true?  Can we really learn from failure? Well, the enemy of success is the fear of failure.  Think about what Thomas Edison once said about the light bulb. He said, “I haven’t  failed. I just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.” I like the way he looks at failure. We  have to change the way that we feel about failures, too. Maybe you’ve tried 10,000  ways that didn’t work. You’re just waiting to find the one light bulb that does.  

 We’ve got to get rid of the negative self-talk when you do make a mistake.  Focus on the positive that comes from the situation. Like the job you just lost? The  one you didn’t even really like? Well, now you have the incentive to go find the job  you really want. Reflect on what you learn, and that doesn’t mean to go back at nit pick every, single mistake. You can acknowledge that you’re strong enough to get  back up when you fall down. But most of all, don’t sweep it under the rug and  pretend it didn’t happen. Consistent action matters more than anything. Taking small  steps every day is more important than trying to make big leaps every once in a  while. The consistent action will help you learn to get back up when you fall down,  and that will help keep moving you forward. So, keep taking action. Doing nothing is  the true failure. Doing nothing means you’re definitely not going anywhere, whereas if  you just keep doing things, even if they’re not perfect, you’re still moving forward,  and that’s what I want for you in the pursuit of your big goals and dreams. Keep  moving forward. Don’t worry about failure, worry about whether you’re moving  forward.  

 Not everything needs to be perfect, and that leads me into next weeks topic,  which will be analysis paralysis and how to get over it. If you’re not familiar with the  term analysis paralysis, it’s basically over-thinking, over-analyzing, and not really  moving forward towards your big goals and dreams. I’m excited to talk to you about  that next week. In the meantime, I will have a new mini-episode of The Weekender  

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launching on Friday with a little bit of information about how to make your November  a little less stressful. If you’d like to connect with me, you can find me on social media  using the username @inkwellpress, or on my website at inkwellpress.com. All right,  until next time, happy planning.  

 Thanks for listening to Productivity Paradox from inkWELL Press. To get free  access to Tanya’s checklist, Five Minutes to Peak Productivity, simply register at  inkwellpress.com/podcast.