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.
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.
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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.
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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.