How To Fail (Part 1)

"I think we're going to lose the business," he texted me. I had asked my entrepreneur friend how work was going. "It's gotten worse," he said, and then that. "I might have to go get a job," he added. 

My friend is a young entrepreneur, really proud of and excited by the fact that he's a business owner, and to lose a business and have to go back to work is absolutely a failure, no doubt about it. It's probably what most of you are afraid of if you're thinking about starting your own business. Because, what do you tell your parents? And your friends? And what do you say in your interview for your next boss? And if you fail at something what does that mean for who you are? 

We have a lot of fear of failure and a lot of social shame associated with the idea of something that isn't successful. Ours is a culture that worships success, only wants to hear about success, and expects that you will be successful in everything that you do. We talk about bootstrapping and working hard and how, if you put in the time and the effort, success will come to you. Failure isn't in our cultural narrative. 

And so, when you do fail, it's impossible. So impossible that you avoid trying or doing things that might lead to failure simply because you really don't want to deal with those consequences. What does this look like in action? When I was in university I avoided taking French, even though I'd always wanted to learn it, because I was worried it would be hard and it might drag down my GPA. In fact, the list of things I've always wanted to learn and haven't is long and riddled with fears, because I really like to be good at stuff. I'm a person who is good at stuff. 

This means, that when I DO fail, and I do, it is extra awfully painful. Because I generally don't have a lot of practice at that. Sound familiar? 

If so, prepare yourself, because there's hope, but you have to step right into the fear that you have and that is holding you back the most. Here's how to limber yourself up and work on your failure muscles. 

Preparing to Fail

Try something new that you've never done before. I know it sounds scary because of all the stuff I just said about failure, but it really will help you. The key is to start with something small. For example, you might try to master the pronunciation of "Hello, how are you?" in your favorite always-wanted-to-learn language. Or, you might try making a new recipe (or cooking anything at all if that's not your thing - but start simple, like, a fried egg.). Or, learn the basic knitting stitch. Or, craft a 3 sentence introduction for yourself and say it out loud. 

What Happened? 

First of all, my guess is that was really hard to think of something small that you could try. This is partly because of another social conditioning factor - we tend to think of BIG things we want to accomplish (Be fluent in french instead of mastering "hello") which makes the task seem unattainable and more prone to failure. Our parents brag about the things we are best at, the awards or games we win, and we tend to share the big stuff when we feel proud of ourselves.We don't focus as much on the small wins, the small steps that move us toward a someday bigger achievement long down the road. But this stuff is essential, because it is the building blocks of building resilience and conquering that resistance and fear of failing.

Notice How you Feel

Did you fail at your small task? If so, would you be willing to try that little tiny thing again (the fried egg or the knitting stitch or the "hello"?)? After all, it's a pretty small task, and no one needs to know if it didn't go well the first time. Was your task too big? Can you break it down even further? Can you get some outside information that will help you complete it?

Or, did you succeed? And if so, amazing! Because now you have a little win that you can begin to build on. 

Go bigger

The key to building resilience to failure and overcoming fear is practice. You have to actually try new things, and fail at some things, and learn about what happens to you when you do fail. What are the things you would like to do but are too afraid of? Make a list, and choose one to start with. Break it down into really, really small steps. Practice and master one thing at a time. You will feel uncomfortable, and that is the point. The point is not to achieve it, but to get comfortable with that feeling of being very uncomfortable. The more you practice that, the easier it will get to tackle bigger projects and ideas and ultimately, to feel the fear and do it anyway when it really matters. 

You may never get rid of that fear of failing, I still carry it with me whenever I try something new. But what will get easier is moving forward with what you want to accomplish and the life you want to have despite that fear. It is possible, if you're willing to try. 

Stay tuned for the next post in this series on how to recover when you do fail.