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Do you fail?

or,

Are you a failure?

Your answers to these questions can say a lot about you, how you approach life, and whether you will be successful.  For most of us, our gut reaction is to avoid even thinking about failure.  We don’t want any part of it and it frightens us even to think about the subject.  Fear of failure is one of the most often cited fears people have.  Is it any wonder we avoid considering the possibility of failure. But even more the potential gifts of failure?

Failure Makes You Human

First, let’s get the basics out of the way.  We all fail.  Every last one of us.  It’s part of the human condition.  It’s not something that just happens to the weak or the lazy.  Sometimes we hold onto these judgments as a buffer against failure as a way of hoping it won’t happen to us.  But the reality is even the hardest workers, the smartest brains, and those who persevere fail. And most of them fail often.

If everyone fails, why are we so afraid of it?  One of the main reasons we fear failure so much is because we believe failure is a statement of who we are as a person.  No one wants to be called or thought of as a failure.  We make the mistake of believing that if we fail we are somehow a failure.  This is a big mistake.

Failure is About Learning

Think about little kiddos learning to walk.  They fail repeatedly.  We don’t call them dumb or stupid or fret that they won’t ever amount to anything.  What do we do?  We encourage them.  Tell them to get back up.  We move major hazards out of the way and we let them fall.  And they fall often.  It is part of how they learn to walk and the act of falling—failing—is part of the learning.

Through falling and figuring out how to get their cute little bottoms off the ground again, kiddos are developing their gross motor skills.  They are learning how to coordinate all their moving parts—literally—in an effort to stand. And then cruise around furniture. And then toddle into the arms of their parents who are waiting with open arms, smiles, and cheers of celebration.

It is—and should be—the same for each of us.  When we are learning something new it is inevitable that there will be failures.  This isn’t because we’re idiots, it’s because we don’t yet know all we need to know to be successful in whatever it is we are learning.  Failure is inherent to the process of learning.

However, the way we fail and what we do after failure can have a big impact not only on how we view ourselves and the world, but whether we will succeed down the road.

The Way You Fail

When you fail, do you conclude you are a failure?  Or do you recognize that failure is inherent to growing and not a red checkmark against you?  Your response to failure can make a big difference in your ability to learn from failure, preserve self-worth, and believe in your ability to progress and be successful.

Unfortunately, too many of us are praised for the wrong things, and this keeps us caught in an intense fear of failure and—if left unchecked—a resistance to trying new things.  Research has shown that kids that are praised for being smart are less likely to try new things and are less likely to believe that they are actually smart (Dweck, 2006).  Part of what happens is that they come to believe that if they stumble in any way this is evidence they are not smart.  The fragile self-esteem of “I’m smart” is destroyed and they give up trying when things become challenging.

Anytime we praise with a focus on characteristics such as being smart or pretty or talented, we feed a fragile view of self and a resistance to learning and growth.  One poor test score can be devastating.  One negative comment can lead people to giving up on themselves.  Fragile indeed.  I’m pretty sure this is not what parents and teachers and coaches intend when they praise on these characteristics, and yet it is often what happens.

Alternatively, praising for effort builds resilience, a strong sense of self, and a willingness to try new things.  I’m not advocating medals for all participants, I’m just suggesting we focus on the things we have control of.  Effort, commitment, and dedication instead of IQ or beauty.  Failing becomes part of the process of growing, nothing more nothing less.  A focus on effort and perseverance communicates the message that we can do hard things, that our effort makes a difference, and that we can develop the skills needed to grow, develop, and prosper.  This is the process that leads to success.  But make no mistake, it still includes failure.

What to do After Failure

Those who believe they are failures if they stumble tend to give up on themselves and the act of learning.  We talk about this as a fixed mindset.  They conclude they can’t be successful and unfortunately sometimes give up trying.  “What’s the point, I’ve already failed.”  Over time, this approach to life becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  The individual concludes “See, I’m a failure” when the reality is they gave up trying.

In contrast, those who adopt a growth mindset recognize that while failure is never pleasant, there are valuable lessons to learn.  Instead of beating up on themselves, those with a growth mindset dust themselves off and begin learning the lessons of the failure.  “Did I give enough effort?  Was I consistent enough? I need to find a tutor.  I need to take my exams more seriously.”  They recognize that failure is not fatal, and if harnessed, there is much to learn from failure to propel one to success.

Fixed vs. Growth Mindset

Dr. Carol Dweck, in her book Mindset, discusses the big differences in a fixed vs. growth mindset and the consequences this can have for relationships, work, education, and long-term success.  It’s a fascinating read and one that can help each of us shift out of a fixed mindset to more of a growth mindset.

Can failure be a gift?  Those who approach failure from a fixed mindset fail(!) to see the gifts of failure.  Instead they see failure as a dark mark on their soul, evidence of their unworthiness, and something they must hide from others at all costs.  This is the feeding pool for perfectionism and it carries a high cost in terms of stress, lack of connection to others, and it ultimately undermines long-term success.

In contrast, those who adopt a growth mindset recognize that while failure is not fun, there is much to be gained from it.  As mentioned above, failure propels us to an honest assessment of our strengths and weaknesses.  And failure helps us recognize the gaps we have and builds motivation for filling in those gaps.

The Gifts of Failure

Failure keeps us humble.  In failure we acknowledge that we don’t have all the answers, and that there are others who can guide us on our path.  This leads to another gift of failure, which is vulnerability.  It hurts to fail.  We are bruised and sometimes we are broken.  But in our brokenness we also come to find goodness and kindness and gentleness from others—if we allow it.

Our ability to acknowledge failure and ask for help connects us in deep and meaningful ways with others.  No one wants to help a know it all who pretends to have it all figured out.  But most of us, when we see the vulnerability of others, are drawn to them and become invested in helping them succeed.  Some of my most tender experiences were with those individuals who helped me see my flaws and then taught me that those flaws aren’t fatal.

Their compassion in turn helped me to not only be compassionate toward myself but toward others I see who are stumbling on their path.  Ultimately, failure can lead to a deep sense of gratitude.  Gratitude for the opportunity to learn. For the roller coaster ride that is life.  Gratitude for those who see us with kindness rather than judgment.  Gratitude for connection with others in our humanness.

As we are able to see failure as fundamental and not fatal, we fear failing less.  We become more willing to try new things and say, “what the hell, I’ll give it a try” because we know that if we fail it will inevitably lead to growth and there’s a good chance we’ll meet some lovely folks along the way to help us laugh and learn and live another day.

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