Your understanding of failure is all wrong

July 29, 2015

We live in a world where failure is touted as a great thing; a necessary route to success; a part of daily life. In the age of innovation we are persuaded to, fail fast, iterate faster, and remember that most startups fail. While we can understand failure intellectually, it’s harder to clarify the way it makes us feel, or better yet the way it threatens to hold us back. Of course, we cannot afford to be held back. So what can we do?

Jerry Colonna from The Reboot, a podcast about the wins and losses of startup leadership, gives great insight. He suggests that it is not the actual act of failing that holds us back from reaching our goals, but rather our fear of failure that prevents us from hitting our true potential.

This is a great insight because Jerry makes the point to separate fear from failure. Failure, as we know, can be a good thing. Even at its most uncomfortable—getting fired from a job, or messing up a potentially great relationship—failure provides a circumstance through which we can better see ourselves in the current moment. It provides a lens of discernment to articulate where we are now, and implement the changes that must occur in order for us to move forward. Failure in itself is not something that holds us back; it is just something that happens.

Now, the fear of failure is a very different thing. The fear of failure is a cognitive process; it is what actually negates our ability to move forward. Usually, this outlook shows up in our lives subtly. For example, deciding not to apply for a new job because you have two years of experience not the recommended four. Or delaying your application to medical school because your test scores, “could be better”. It is important for us to remember that our fear of failure is usually masked as a secure and rational thought process—this is what makes it so dangerous.

The reason stepping out of our comfort zone is so intense, even though we intellectually know it's the only real way to grow, is because it’s also the only real way to fail—and failure is not fun. It does not publically highlight our best selves.

Failure, however, is the very thing that brings us closer to where we want to be.

There is nothing noble about refusing to acknowledge the fear of failure. It is an existential dilemma we all navigate daily. What we can do is work with our fear, taking it in as useful data rather than as pure threat. We can start this process by examining the things we say no to. What offers have you refused this week, and why? How are those decisions impacting your progress? Once we begin recognizing our fear of failure, we can grow through difficult or stagnant situations—we can begin to transform.

Transformation does not happen intellectually, by simply knowing the right thing to do and then doing it. The smoker continues to smoke despite the widespread knowledge of its harmful effects, for example. Transformation happens when you actively discern through every feeling and situation. Transformation happens when you embrace it all—including the anxiety of being fired, while on the road to living your dreams.

The cognitive awareness of the truth, that it will be ok (which it will) does not always alleviate the dreadful feeling, of course. But what does alleviate the fear is an understanding that the voices of dread that sometimes come are simply information. It's just data to make the best next move, then the next, and then the next. When you make those moves confidently working with fear, rather than succumbing to or avoiding it all together, you win.

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