THE COURAGE TO FAIL - 180 x 600

“Do one thing every day that scares you.” — Eleanor Roosevelt

We crave success stories – Thomas Edison inventing the light bulb, Steve Jobs founding of Apple Computer, Oprah Winfrey’s rise as a television icon. Yet, we tend to discount the failure these highly successful people experienced along the way – 1,000 failed attempts by Edison, Job’s firing by Apple (before they hired him back), and Oprah being told that she wasn’t “fit for TV” in one of her first on-air jobs.

In his lecture on failure, writer and positive psychologist Tal Ben Shahar tells his classes, “learn to fail or fail to learn.”  Easier said than done I thought to myself.

We avoid failure because it hurts! And, the anticipation of failing at something we have set our goals on is anxiety provoking at a minimum, and possibly terrifying.  In his book The Courage Quotient: How Science Makes You Braver, Robert Biswas-Diener says, “even though on reflection we might recognize that courage results when we act despite our fears, fear often gets lost in the popular narratives of courage. A little bit of fear is healthy. It makes us careful, and equips us to fight and engage when we need to.”

Acceptance of failure is equally important in organizations. In her work studying teams, Amy Edmonson, a professor at Harvard Business School found when employees were free to admit mistakes, they were more likely to offer ideas for new and improved ways of working leading to greater creativity and problem solving.

How then to deal with our fear of failure?  Biwas-Diener has a number of recommendations:

  • Set Meaningful Goals – Research indicates that focusing on progress toward a goal helps contain fear.
  • Fill in missing information – Reduce fear by obtaining information or visualizing a situation.  Researching a business plan for an entrepreneur or getting acquainted with an auditorium for a presenter can eliminate some of the fear of the unknown.
  • Stop the Runaway Train – Use stress reduction techniques such as deep breathing, exercise, or meditation to reduce anxiety.
  • Let Go of Ego – Recall the benefit to others of your action rather than focusing on your own fear.
  • Get Angry – Anger is an emotion stronger than fear. If you need to get something done that’s important to you, get angry!

In short, failure is part of the human condition, and courage can be learned. Failure teaches us things about ourselves that cannot be learned another way.  Learning from failure is difficult, complicated work. Aren’t we better served if we admit what we don’t know and learn from our own and others’ experiences? In the words of Biswas-Diener, “You do not have to accept that failure feels good, just that it’s inevitable and often beneficial.”

Exercise: Set a goal for yourself. Write down the benefits and growth potential of the goal. Be as specific as you can.  When your confidence wanes or you feel like giving up, pull out your list and remind yourself of what you can gain by moving forward.

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