Everyone is afraid of failure. Everyone, that is, who doesn’t understand the value that failing can bring to their lives.
Unfortunately, most of us grow up in an environment in which failure is not only not valued, it is often considered a punishable offense. The first failing grade I ever received—I was perhaps 13 and it was for PE (gym) class—left me petrified with fear. Already an anxiety-ridden child who bit her nails to the quick and suffered from stress-induced eczema, the thought of presenting to my brutally inflexible perfectionist of a mother a report card with an “F” on it frightened me so badly it made my bladder weak. In all truth, I cannot remember how she took it—which means either she took it in her stride because PE was not, in her estimation, an “important” class or she went off on me so badly I have completely blocked it from conscious mind. Either way, I approached the moment of handing it off to her with nausea-inducing trepidation, as failure was not an option.
I am quite sure that my mother’s reaction to failure was just as over-the-top as were most of her other reactions. She was volatile and explosive and unpredictable, so the only thing I could do was prepare for the worst and hope for the best when a failure of some kind was presented to her. In retrospect, however, it pains me even more to look at the hundreds upon hundreds of teachable moments that went by the wayside, moments in which I, by spring boarding off of a failure, could have improved my skill or knowledge or understanding, because failure was something to be avoided at all costs—and viewed with grave trepidation if you failed anyway.
A good example was when I was first tasked with mopping the kitchen floor. At ten I was a scrawny little thing with a bad frizzy home perm and matchstick arms and legs. I was also short. My mother’s mop was an old fashioned rag mop, the kind with a clamp over which was originally draped a replaceable string mop head, which was then secured to the mop handle by a lever that closed the clamp. My mother, however, never one to spend a dime when a nickel will allow you to scrape, by had draped a length of cloth—a piece of an old towel—over the clamp when the original string head wore out and that became the kitchen mop. It was truly a rag mop, as the odd bits of old clothing, towelling, and worn-to-rags sheets forever took the place of the original string head. This mop required wringing by hand, which was tough for a skinny little kid, even if the worn scraps of cloth in the makeshift mop head didn’t hold much water.
I had seen my mother mop the kitchen floor a few times so I thought I had a good idea as to what needed to be done and did as I remembered my mother doing. When I was finished, sweating and breathing hard, I recall being proud of myself for even getting under the kitchen table—it was not my mother’s habit to teach me how to do something because she seemed to expect me to come directly from the womb with the knowledge of household labour already imprinted in my brain.
My self-pride was short-lived. She swept into the kitchen to inspect and the scowl on her face gave me a moment to brace myself for the onslaught of criticism and belittling that inevitably followed such a face. In the space of a few minutes my hour of stoop labour was dissected and my pride severely lacerated. Through this failure (and subsequent ones, where she found even more things that I had overlooked in my ignorance) I learned how to mop a floor with crude tools, minimal product, and no instruction. And what could have been a learning exercise that played on my sense of accomplishment, giving me even more pride in my work, ended up being a drudgery, a chore approached with trepidation, knowing that at the end I would be subjected to a barrage of criticism for failing to do that which I did not know needed doing.
Imagine if she had taken me aside and said, “Wow! Not bad at all for a first attempt! I am proud of you. Now, next time, I want you to pull all of the chairs away from the table and put them on top [and demonstrates how to put a chair upside down on the table] and then sweep the floor first. That way, you won’t get those streaks in the middle of the floor.”
That would have made me look forward to the next time so I could do a better job. And if, after that second time, she had taken me aside and said “Wow! That looks even better than last time! Now, did you know that if you rinse the mop with clean water, in the sink, it will get even cleaner? And if you wring out one half of the mop, then the other half, you will get more dirty water out? Why don’t you try that the next time?”
From an abstract point of view, the necessity of this kind of talk would be an indicator of failure on my part—of not getting the floor clean. But to praise me for the successful parts or, barring those, praising my effort, would have made me eager to try again, especially with the “tips” passed on to me to help me to a better job. I would have been the happiest ten-year-old floor washer in Southern California, putting my little heart into the job just to hear the praise and hints for doing an even better job next time.
It isn’t that failure is bad, it is how you view it and how others treat it—and you. My father once told me that no experience is a complete waste of time or effort if you just learned something from it. Sometimes it is difficult to find the lesson in a failure, but once you do, the experience transforms from a failure into a learning experience—certainly it can be a painful one—but a lesson learned through failure is seldom forgotten.
Unfortunately for us ACoNs, we didn’t grow up with emotionally sensitive parents—and I doubt many of them were particularly deep thinkers, regardless of IQ. It doesn’t occur to them that a failed effort is a ripe plum falling into their laps, the plum of opportunity to educate and actually ensure they ultimately get what they want.
Having been raised by a highly skilled malignant narcissist, I have an intimate knowledge of manipulation and I have been known to use it. Manipulation, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. It is bad when you use it to disadvantage others, but when you use it to help someone learn things that are useful to them, it is a useful tool. My maid came to work for me ten years ago with only three months of very sketchy experience. When I would assign her a task, I would demonstrate how to do it, then give her the cleaning cloth or mop or whatever and say “Let me know if you need any help.”
When I would come later to see how she was doing, I would find the areas where her work was substandard, but I would say “Can you see this here? Let me show you a way to get it clean…” then demonstrate…then have her do it in front of me. Then praise her “Exactly! If you do it that way, you’ll get it finished in no time!” and then leave the room. When I taught her to iron I took out two shirts: first I ironed a collar, then had her iron the collar on her shirt. Instead of scolding her for wrinkling the collar with the iron, I simply picked up a spray bottle and said “Let me show you how to get those wrinkles out…” and demonstrated. She made plenty of mistakes while learning to iron shirts but I did not raise my voice or treat those mistake like the end of the world: they were simply opportunities to show her how to do something—and how to come back from errors.
This approach teaches resilience. I learned this from my grandmother, a woman who patiently showed me how to separate eggs over and over again until I got it right. Each time I made an error, rather than blasting me for it, she simply said “If you do it that way you will break the yolk,” or “if you separate them one-at-a-time in a cup you won’t spoil the whole batch if one breaks.” Matter-of-fact advice in a matter-of-fact tone of voice delivered after each error. Mistakes around my grandmother were nothing to fear, just as my maid is not afraid to make a mistake around me…or even tell me she has broken something.
So, if a failure is, more than anything, a learning opportunity, why are we so afraid of it? How many babies get up from crawling and just walk confidently across the floor? How would that child learn to walk if she was afraid of failure? How many children try and fail repeatedly before they finally learn to roller skate or to ride a bike? How many championship surfers or drivers or equestrians or gymnasts reach their peaks without a single failure? The value of failure is that is offers you opportunity after opportunity to fine-tune yourself, to up your game. A dispassionate analysis of your failures is no less valuable than your successes: the former is what allows you to achieve the latter.
Unenlightened others have conditioned you to believe failure is bad and without value. Unfortunately a lot of people believe that, from your neighbour to your clergyman to your boss to your siblings, spouse, friends, and parents. The biggest problem with this viewpoint is not just that they fail to learn from their own failures by hiding from them, but they try to prevent you from learning from your own. They do this by communicating to you that errors are things to be ashamed of, to hide both from others and from yourself. But you cannot learn the lessons that failure has to teach you if you take on shame and then try to sweep it all under the rug. You also cannot learn what failure has to teach you if you refuse to address it and analyse it.
What is it failure can do for you? First of all, it can teach you about pride—too much pride: nobody is too good to fail and because it is a normal human misfortune, failing at anything simply means you are human. Are you ashamed of that?
Secondly, failure can lead you to new knowledge. At the very least it can teach you that what you are doing is not working and that you need to try something else—but if you hide from that, you may find yourself repeating the same unproductive behaviour over and over again because you have hidden from failure—repudiated it, hidden it away from your consciousness—and therefore could not learn from it. How many times have you tried, over and over, to win approbation from your Ns? How many times has it worked? Why are you still trying? (Because you feel shamed by your failures and therefore do not analyse them to see what is going wrong.)
Failure, above all, is a learning opportunity. Nothing you have in your life today, from your cell phone to your tablet to your car to your kitchen stove came about without multiple failures—and analysis of those failures—happening first. DNA testing, laparoscopic surgery, rockets to the moon and even such mundane things as frozen food and microwave ovens went through a developmental stage in which error after error after error was made, analysed, fine-tuned, and improved upon until finally, a success was made to let the developers know they were on the right track. Success almost never comes out of one’s head fully fleshed and perfectly functional, it take failures, analysis of the failures, and then trying—and failing—again until the failures are eradicated (or it becomes apparent that the endeavour simply cannot succeed).
So why are we afraid of failure? I would wager ACoNs are afraid of it for primarily one of two reasons (and maybe both). First, we have assumed a kind of all-encompassing fear of retaliation, punishment, reprisal that is no longer rational. As kids many of us were actually looking at real retribution in the form of beatings or verbal abuse or deprivation of something. Fail to get the bathroom suitably clean, no movie for you this Saturday; a “C” in math? No dessert until the next report card comes out and you have a “B” or better. Didn’t get all of the ironing done? Grounded for the weekend. But we are adults now and the only people who can really punish us is ourselves. We have the power to refuse to allow our Ns to punish us any longer by simply turning our backs on them. Their threats of punishment are, for the most part, toothless attempts to fool you into thinking they still have the same rights and power over you as when you were ten years old and that they can and will exercise them. The only way they truly have that power today is if you give it to them, and you always—always—have the power to take it back. Only when you have taken it back can that fear of retribution go away—and your fear of failure can’t go away unless that fear of retribution goes first.
Second, we continue to expect perfection of ourselves and failure is undeniable proof that we have failed to be perfect. Overcoming this requires a fundamental shift in your own basic view of the world because if you expect yourself to be perfect, you expect others to be perfect as well, and that is one of the most damaging things you can do to a person because it strips them of their humanity because you only legitimately expect perfection from machines. And that means you have stripped yourself of your humanity by expecting perfection of yourself.
This is one of the most corrosive expectations you can have of yourself, of others, and most especially, of children. And the worst part of this is that often, beneath our consciousness—a consciousness in which we believe we do not expect perfection of others, like our children—this expectation remains alive. We cannot eradicate our expectation of perfection of others, including children, unless we stop expecting it of ourselves. That is because as long as we expect it of ourselves, deep down in our heart-of-hearts, we believe that it is possible, even when our conscious minds recognize its impossibility.
When we embrace failures as learning experiences we can begin to short-circuit this belief. When we do or think something repeatedly, we assimilate it. Over time, this can become automatic and it can displace contrary or conflicting beliefs. Consciously embrace your failures and then analyse them. Consciously say “Well, that didn’t work—why not?” and then begin to replay it in your head…replay each step, looking for things you could have done or said or thought differently, then project that forward to try to see what the outcome of that might be. If you find a place or two that you could have done differently, you have changed your failure into a learning experience and the next time this comes your way, try one of the changes. If that doesn’t work, then you can re-analyse and see what else you could have done differently. If you do this multiple times and then still have no success—well, actually you have succeeded—you have succeeded in learning that 1) you need outside help to tackle this or 2) this is one of those things in life you cannot fix/control/manage, and then you can work on learning ways to avoid/live with it.
A perfect example of this for us, is in dealing with our NParents. If your NM has just given you That Look and you suddenly feel guilty, instead of going into an anxiety state, start thinking. Yes, it will be work at first because your body has reacted with adrenaline and cortisol and you are feeling panicky and like you have to run or yell or something. So breathe deeply, let the air out slowly and begin to think. What is the problem? The problem is your NM is obviously unhappy and most likely it is something you said just before That Look came over her face. What did you say? Can’t remember? Reach back further to what was being said/done immediately before she took on That Look. Your sister made mention of your father, NM’s ex-husband. Your sister said it, so why is That Look being directed at you? Because NM always thinks you put your sister up to stuff, that Sister is a sweet innocent and anything that comes out of her mouth that NM doesn’t like was put there by you. Is that true? If yes, did you tell Sister not to say this to or in front of NM? If no, then you’re busted. What could you have done differently? 1) not say things to Sister that will pop out her mouth around NM and make her mad at you; 2) warn Sister not to repeat this in front of NM or anybody who might tell NM; 3) keep your mouth shut around Sister; or 4) be prepared for NM’s wrath when Sister speaks up in front of you. Now, your punishable act, your “error in judgment,” has become a learning experience. You know that your sister is going to indiscriminately blab things you tell her; you know you must either warn her not to say this stuff in front of NM or you simply must not say these things to her yourself.
But you are still anxious from getting That Look. Now what? Think and analyse some more. Obviously, she is displeased. What can she do about it? She can’t ground you or take away your car keys or dock your allowance—but she can yell at you, get nasty to you, pull a guilt trip on you. OK—you know what she can do—if she does any of them, what are your choices? 1) sit there and allow her to vent, and feel guilty for being bad; 2) sit there and let her vent and realize that she is blaming you for your sister’s loose tongue, she’s out of line and none of the guilt she is throwing at you is yours; 3) JADE—justify, argue, defend, excuse yourself to her and get a fight going; 4) interrupt her and say “If you cannot speak respectfully to me, I can leave,” and then if she continues with her verbal assault (or sulk or whatever passive aggressive behaviour she has chosen to punish you with), leave. Or, 5) you can get up without a single word and walk away.
By the time you get to this part in your thinking and have chosen how to respond, your adrenaline rush should have dissipated a bit. Engaging her will get you another one—so will walking away. But walking away will take you out of the fray where engaging here will only escalate it.
This is how a failure on your part (failed to make NM happy, failed to warn Sister to keep something you said between just you two, failure to recognize Sister would likely blab it in front of NM) can be turned into a learning experience for you. It doesn’t matter if anybody else sees it as a failure just as long as you can learn and grow from the experience. A baby learning to walk overbalances and falls numerous times before he finally gets it right—what if he was not allowed to fail? What if there was a limit on how many failures were permissible before he wouldn’t try anymore? There is a child in Brazil who was born with no feet and yet he not only learned to walk (with no prostheses), he is a soccer prodigy1. What if he had listened to the parent who was convinced he would never be able to walk? He tried and he failed many more times than you or I did when learning to walk, but he learned from each failure until he had learned to fine tune his balance to the point that he could not only walk, but he could excel at soccer.
How can we justify doing anything less? Because failure hurts or is humiliating? Well, if you stop thinking of it as failure and start thinking of it as the first step in a learning process, the pain is blunted, the humiliation loses its sting. The more you do it, the less of the negatives you feel. The first time I wore a bikini I stayed wrapped in a towel, embarrassed by sheer abundance of naked never-seen-the-sun white flesh. By the end of the summer I had no trouble at all dropping the towel and heading for the water: the more I did it, the less uncomfortable I was with it. Learning to embrace failure works exactly the same way and if you are going to reap the rewards it has to give you, it is something you need to start working on sooner, rather than later.