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Collage artwork about failure

Owning the Rubber and the Road

I talk to my students a lot about the role failure will play in their careers and what comes from owning those shortcomings rather than deflecting them. Failure can provide us with a learning opportunity if we choose to see it that way. It gives us a method to improve how we approach things based on our own mistakes, not others’ mistakes, which is infinitely more valuable. Yet, for all the positive “failure speak” I go on about, I still struggle to own my garbage. I have to force myself at times to get the rubber to meet the road.

“Success is the ability to go from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.” ~ Winston Churchill

I’ve had the opportunity to realize this (again) about myself recently. You see, I failed a couple of months ago. I made a promise, and I didn’t deliver. I was called to the carpet for failing, as I should have been. And, at that moment, I was faced with an opportunity to learn. However, I didn’t see it that way, and that, friends, is the issue.

No matter how many times we’re faced with our shortcomings, our first instinct seems to be to raise our defenses. We hate standing in the light or having it shown in our general direction. That fear of failure, fear of being an imposter, fear of whatever kicks in hard in those moments, and we start to do the deflection dance. Walls go up, excuses are made, and that fear emotionally stymies all opportunities to learn. I know this because I live this.

The Initial Trauma

That initial reaction, when confronted with failure, is a tough one. Do we accept it or deny it? Most likely, we deny it. Do we get angry and deflect? Most likely, we do. Do we blame the other person on our team? From time to time, we might want to. Do we sulk? Always.
I would argue that none of these initial reactions is necessarily wrong. Being upset at being told you have failed is tough—failing is tough. So, to have an initial knee jerk reaction is to be expected. It’s what we do after that initial reaction, though, that counts.

Fear’s Deadly Combo

There are two main mistakes I think are often made when facing failure. The first is that we never move beyond the initial response. We literally can’t accept the fact that we’ve screwed up. We can’t, and don’t want to, show weakness. What would that mean to my untarnished reputation? What happens to my “I’m the best at what I do” reputation if I fail? Most of this is fear-based thinking. Fear of being found out (read imposter syndrome), fear of judgment from our peers, fear of judgment from our families. Fear, fear, fear. Left unchecked, this leads us to our second and more important mistake.

The absolute worst thing you can do when facing failure is to externalize and redirect that on to someone or something else. Passing the buck results from that initial panic not being brought in to check, and then allowing it to get so vast and unbearable that you feel you have to toss the blame at someone or something to get those lights off you. It’s understandable too, I mean, no one wants to be in the “hot seat.” However, the real problem with this approach is that once it’s out in the open, it’s out there. And if this was your failure, you’ve just compounded it and made it worse by deflecting that onto someone else. Plus, you look like an ass.

Counting to Ten

The other real problem is that by giving into fear’s deadly combo, we rob ourselves of an opportunity to learn something about ourselves. Failure is an educational point. So, the best thing to do when confronted with failure is to keep our mouths shut. Let the failure be directed at you for the moment. Have your initial reactions and then stop, think, and assess.

I like to start with the question, “Is it true?” You can ask yourself few questions that are more direct and profoundly let you cut to the quick than that one. The problem with this question, however, is that you have to be open to the answer. So, that is where we start.

Did I fail at [insert lengthy failure bullet list given to you here]? Is it true? Many times the answer is going to be “no.” Sometimes, though, you will get the affirmative. When it’s a “yes,” we need to face that, but an assessment needs to happen as well.

The Waters Are Often Murky

The answer to the question is not always bipolar—a clear “yes” or “no.” Many times it’s unclear, or other contributing factors confuse the situation. In those cases, the assessment process becomes crucial. Our job at that point is to identify the places where we failed and the process (or others) failed as well. Failure is rarely the result of you all by yourself. It can be, but most times, it’s not.

Own It

Of course, if you are solely responsible for the failure, you have one simple (not so simple) job, and that is to own it. Trust me; you’re going to hate it. It’s going to be like taking a giant swig of Castor Oil or something nasty like that. Yet, once we do, we can start to move forward with the learning bit.

Once we get to being honest with ourselves and being okay with letting ourselves be human (read making mistakes), we get the added benefit of learning from those failures and finding new, more quantitative, and qualitative ways of doing things. We get better. Refreshing, isn’t it?

Tell It to the Mountain

Armed with this newfound clarity and peace, go to the people who brought your failures to light. Apologize and tell them what you’ve identified and what you’ve learned from this process. If the failure is not yours alone, explain where you see things breaking down and how the breakdown might have been avoided. Revel in your newfound maturity.

You might, unfortunately, be met with cold indifference, excuses or hostility redirected back at you when you have this conversation. Do you recognize it? You betcha, they were just rope-a-doped by fear’s knuckles (the same as you were initially) and that the issue (anger, deflection) lies with them and not you. If other people can’t accept their failures, that is a “them problem.” In the end, you are moving forward with clarity of vision and purpose.

Each time we accept failure and learn from it, we get better at what we do and who we are. When facing and accepting failure, the ultimate goal is to stay emotionally unclogged and efficient (like a compostable toilet). And that is what makes us more excellent than the sum of our parts.