Embracing failure

[Originally posted on my blog, Figure Your Life Out]

When I was in my 20s, I don’t remember hearing about how ‘great’ failure was. Maybe my then-perfectionist-self was blocking out that messaging. Now that I’m in my early 30s, it seems like accepting and embracing failure is everywhere – I see articles about it on my Facebook and Twitter feeds, my favorite blogs and podcasts, and LinkedIn.

Maybe people weren’t ready for it 5 to 10 years ago. Today, social media grants us so much insight into each others lives. It’s become a lot harder to hide some of the everyday failures we all experience. The recession and its impact on families, careers and homes probably added to that: so many people who maybe had never failed before were now feeling like failures in every aspect of their lives. With the masses going through similar experiences, someone decided it was time to make it OK.

Kind of like how we want to feel better about aging: the 50s are the new 40s, the 40s are the new 30s, the 30s are the new 20s and the 20s just suck. I’m not sure any 20-something thinks that decade sucks – it’s just what all of us older people tell ourselves the further we get from that decade.

Moving on.

I’ve spent a majority of my life avoiding failure as much as possible. I never wanted to look stupid or like an underperformer. As I’ve gotten older, however, I’ve learned that I’m too lazy to be a perfectionist – I don’t want to waste all that time trying to please a bunch of people who don’t matter. When I’m on my deathbed, there will be a handful of people whose opinions of me count. Thankfully those are the people who are already impressed by me, with all my failures in tow.

And my bitchy attitude. They admire me despite my failures and my bitchy attitude.

I came to a realization when I turned 30. (Milestone birthdays always seem to trigger some self-reflection and reprioritization (or attempt at reprioritization) in life.) What I realized is that there might be a lot of things out there that I could potentially be really good at, but I had been avoiding them because I didn’t already know how to do them and didn’t want to fail. I wasted so much time worrying about failure when I could have been learning.

If I could travel back in time, I’d share the following five points with my younger self.

1) Ask questions and don’t make assumptions.

Have you heard the phrase, “fake it ‘til you make it?” Early in my career, this was my motto. Instead of admitting that I didn’t know or understand something, I’d just nod my head, frantically taking notes so that I could Google whatever people were talking about later. While “fake it ‘til you make it” has some benefits to our psyche, it can cause a lot of issues if we let it.

As a communications consultant, I attend a lot of meetings to help non-communications people share their messages in clear, concise ways. Oftentimes I’m meeting with people whose work is unfamiliar to me. There’s no expectation that I be an expert in their field, but I used to put this pressure on myself to be an expert so that I didn’t look stupid. I assumed I would eventually understand what the heck they were talking about, so I faked it in the interim. This charade would go on for weeks or months. Every single time this happened, I told myself later that if I had just asked questions from the beginning, I probably would have learned a lot.

The best advice is to balance what you’re faking. Oh, and never make assumptions. Instead, just ask the questions that will answer whatever it is you’re making assumptions about. It’s OK to say things like, “I’ve never heard of this before – how did it come to be?” or “I’ve never done that – tell me more,” or “Can you restate that sentence for someone who’s not in this industry?”

A lot of people will say there is no such thing as a stupid question. I disagree. I’ve worked for plenty of organizations where people ask ridiculously stupid questions. All. The. Time. Yet those people are still employed, which tells me that even though there are stupid questions, we should feel free to go ahead and ask them if we legitimately need to hear the answer. Sometimes those stupid-question-asking-people are even praised for asking such “good” questions. So good news: no matter how stupid your question might be, you’ll probably still impress someone.

2) What’s the worst that could happen?

Part of the reason I decided all of this fear was stupid was because I thought the fear might be holding me back from reaching some unknown potential or success. One thing I desperately feared was public speaking. But yet I’ve always believed that I have the potential to be a really good public speaker. The terrifying fear, however, held me back: public speaking seems like a very easy way to completely fail and look stupid.

When I turned 30 and thought about this, I was so angry at myself for avoiding all this potential for failure. I kept asking myself, “What’s the worst that could happen?” My answers ranged from “die” to “pass out” to “be the laughingstock of the department.” (Being the laughingstock was the only one I actually feared.)

The real worst thing that could happen? Another 5, 10 or 15 years go by and I’m still terrified of this thing. I might miss out on awesome job opportunities. More importantly, in my opinion, I might miss out on something that I’m destined to be AMAZING at. So I joined Toastmasters – it’s been super helpful in building my confidence.

3) You aren’t the center of everyone’s universe.

I can be very Lindsey-centric sometimes. This is especially true when it comes to public speaking and my fear of becoming a laughingstock if I were to mess up. In my Lindsey-centric head, I assume that if I stumble on some words or mess up, everyone is going to notice, point and laugh, and it’ll be the talk of the metaphorical town for months.

In reality, no one cares about me or my public speaking mistakes.

No matter how big of a mistake you make – assuming it’s not illegal or meme-able – it will eventually be forgotten. And probably a lot sooner than your ego would like to think. Most people have too much going on in their world to remember one of your failures. I’m sure you’re great, but you’re not the center of everyone’s universe. All of us make mistakes and fail. Do you sit and dwell about the mistakes and failures of others? I hope not. I’m a pretty judgmental person, but even I don’t think much about it. Who has time for that?

Here’s another way to think about it. So many mega-famous celebrities have gone through some weird phases – some have even experienced major bouts of failure. But almost all of them pick themselves up and move on to the next thing, and the world forgets whatever happened in the past and embraces them. Does anyone remember that Angelina Jolie used to be a little out there? Today, most people think of her as poised and maybe even regal. But she used to walk around with Billy Bob Thornton’s blood in a vial around her neck. Let me repeat: Blood. In a vial. Around her neck.

No matter how big of a failure or embarrassment you might experience today, you can recover. And you will have learned so much. You’re probably better off if you fail miserably – America loves a comeback story.

4) Quitters never win – or do they?

I listened to an awesome Freakonomics podcast that was all about quitting (The Upside of Quitting, September 2011). The episode explored the saying, “Quitters never win and winners never quit.” The show interviewed two men who were promising baseball stars in high school, went into the minor leagues and…that was it. One guy played for six or seven seasons before accepting that he would never make it into the major leagues, so he quit and moved on. Another guy had been playing in the minors for 16 seasons at the time the show aired – he was in his early 30s – and wouldn’t stop because he didn’t want to be a quitter. After 16 seasons of low pay (while supporting a family) and dwindling chances of “succeeding,” doesn’t quitting sound like the best option? Not for him.

This doesn’t mean that you should quit whenever things get hard. And no one can tell you when it’s time to quit or when it’s time to hunker down and keep up the persistence. But I think we know the answer in our gut.

It’s also important to note that just because you’ve deemed one aspect of your dream or task a failure, it doesn’t mean you have to abandon the whole project. Minor league baseball players might find a coaching gig or a totally different but related route as a financial advisor to athletes. While they might not be destined to be a major league star, they still have relevant experience that can be channeled in a different way.

5) Failure today might lead to success tomorrow.

I’ve started a number of blogs, none of which have met the levels of success that I had hoped. The first two were really just for fun – places where I could rant about irritating and questionable human behavior. One was about health and wellness – I took it seriously for about 20 minutes. After a few weeks of posting maybe every other week, I just stopped entirely.

My most recent blog was a lifestyle blog that featured outfit posts, product reviews and a few rants here and there. I created a Facebook page for the blog and invited a bunch of friends and family. This is the one I wanted to take off, but it just wasn’t happening. I can list a bunch of reasons why, but the biggest piece is that while I love shopping and buying clothes, I’m just really not that fashionable. And a moderately fashionable lifestyle blogger typically doesn’t garner much attention.

I could keep focusing on it, putting lots of time into it. Or I could move on to the next thing. I learned a lot throughout the process – even things unrelated to my blog – and it helped me to think more intently about what I’d want my next experiment to be.

In conclusion

In the end, that’s what failure is really all about: Learning. If you are a hard worker, you can recover from almost any failure. If you follow these five tips, your life will be easier (because you’ve let go of unimportant people’s opinions), more fulfilling (because you’re developing new skills and reaching unknown potential) and probably more successful (because you’ll be able to quickly weed through all the stuff you aren’t meant to do).

I wish you lots of successful failures in your future.

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