Failing vs Failure

The recent opening of the Museum of Failure in Sweden inspired me to pick up the subject of failure, how we perceive it and why it's actually important. The head curator of the museum is quoted in the New York Times saying, "The purpose of the museum is to show that innovation requires failure. If you are afraid of failure, then we can't innovate."

Can I get a "YAAAAAASSSSSS!"? Raising hands emoji on repeat, forever!

Seriously, though, this is a super important concept. And yet, it can feel extremely difficult to fully embody in practice.

As humans, we are extremely averse to failure. Our culture praises success and shames failure, and therefore, we straight up live in fear of failing.

In turn, this fear keeps us playing small.

We don't go for that job promotion because what if we don't get it?

We don't pitch our new product idea at a meeting because what if our colleagues think it's stupid?

We don't ask that cute guy or girl out because what if they say no?

The list of things that fear of failure has kept people from doing goes on and on.

We give so much power to the fear of failure in our lives, and yet, as the Museum of Failure highlights, failure is necessary for innovation. The lessons that people and brands learn from failure are essential to informing further innovation and creation.

Also, let me clarify one thing here: innovation doesn't necessarily mean coming up with new products or companies. It can also mean making new discoveries about yourself or life.

Some of the greatest breakthroughs in people's lives have come from moments where things didn't go as planned. They "failed" at what they were doing. And in failing, their minds were opened up to the very thing they were meant to succeed at. 

So, how do we start actually believing in the importance of failure in our lives (rather than playing small out of fear of it)?

I think the most important step is to separate out "failing" and "failure".

What I mean by this is recognizing that just because you fail at something does NOT mean that you, as an individual, are a failure.

These are actually two very separate things.

For example, if you put your hat in the ring for a promotion at work and didn't get it, that does not make you a failure at all things in life simply because it didn't happen. Yes, you may have "failed" to get the promotion, but that in no way means that you are suddenly terrible at your current job or that you'll never be able to get a promotion for the rest of your life. It's just one thing that didn't work out the way you thought you wanted it to. 

And yet, so often we let this sort of "failure" define us. Our self-esteem gets smashed into the floor and we see ourselves as worthless, not good enough, a failure. We spiral out and only focus on how much we suck. But that's not actually the case, now is it?

Let me give you a personal example as fear of failure is something I combat on a daily basis as a business owner.

As I'm growing my business, I'm trying new things constantly and some of them don't get as much traction as others. And sometimes those projects that don't get traction on are things that I really really really wanted to happen, that I have a serious attachment to. It stings a bit for sure. Yet, while you could say that some of the things I try out in my business have "failed", it doesn't mean that my business is a "failure" or that I myself am a "failure." Again, it just means that that one thing didn't work out.

When I can look at it this way, I find that I'm able to loosen the powerful grip of the fear of failure. Yes, this can be particularly difficult with the projects that I feel super attached to. But when I remove my self-worth from their performance, I can be a little less tied to the outcome. 

And, when I let go of the things that have "failed" (and stop spending energy on trying to force them to work), then I open up my energy for new creative ideas to move in. Some may work, some may not, but in the end it's all innovation informed by those "failures."

So let's get back to that job promotion scenario.

In "failing" to get the job promotion you thought you wanted, what might you actually be able to create space for if you're willing to see it as a bump in the road rather than exploding your entire career path or dictating your self-worth?

  • You might re-evaluate your role and path at the company and realize you're actually ready to move on to a new employer.
  • You might realize that you actually want to go back to grad school and this non-promotion is the perfect opportunity to do so.
  • You may find that a totally new role that you didn't know about (but sounds super interesting) is suddenly available at your current company and decide to apply for it.
  • You may decide to go for the promotion again in a few months, but this time you know what successes to highlight, how to advocate for yourself and how to better negotiate because you've done it before.

Those are just some of the many opportunities that could arise from NOT getting that promotion. The trick to being open to them is not letting this sort of "failure" make you believe that you are a failure. Yes, you can absolutely be disappointed that you didn't get the promotion, but you can't let it dictate your self-worth or your ability to be successful in the future.

Instead, let it serve as a learning experience that gives you the new information you need to move forward with your path, whatever the direction.

So, what's a good way to start separating failing/failure when things don't go as planned in your own life?

The next time you are faced with a "failure" of sorts, I want you to repeat the following phrase to yourself:

I am worthy regardless of the outcome. This is a learning experience and I am open to new, creative opportunities that will present themselves.

Now repeat it a million times! No, seriously, do it!

The most effective way to disconnect your self-worth from the outcome of projects, job promotions, dates, and the millions of other ways you put yourself out there is to change your mindset around the outcome. Repeating the above mantra (or another one that works for you) is a great way to start retraining your brain's initial reaction to the potential for failure. 

In doing so, you'll be setting yourself up to lead with a more confident, positive mindset. If your self-worth is not wrapped up in the outcome, you'll be less afraid of trying new things. And if you're less afraid to try new things or gasp! "fail", who knows what awesomeness you might stumble upon?

Want some help with working on this? Let's chat!

Be well,