Issue #25: Failure, served three ways
How to embrace your setbacks without letting them define you.
A software engineer, a marketing consultant and a life coach walk into a meeting room. This sounds like a 21st century take on one of those ‘a doctor, a lawyer and a priest enter a bar…’ jokes, but in this case it was for a breakfast event called ‘Borrow a Brain’ which takes place monthly at my co-working space here in Lisbon.
The format: one person volunteers to share a presentation with a small group of fellow members outlining a professional challenge they’re facing, before receiving feedback and suggestions. This month, the person in the hot seat was me. While I won’t linger on the specifics, you might correctly guess presenting one’s career challenges to an audience – sharing past ‘failures’ along the way – is a daunting process, particularly as a self-employed person for whom these things tend to go unwitnessed. And yet I emerged not only with a list of interdisciplinary career advice, but also with a fresh perception of the ‘failures’ I’d been so scared to share.
The inverted commas are necessary, by the way. Because failure – like success – is a highly subjective term. In some professions (coding being a prime example) it is inextricable from the ‘trial and error’ process of working. But in most scenarios, professional and personal, we find it hard to be so detached. When it comes to failure, it occurs to me there are two competing ‘Should’ voices in my – and, I’m guessing, your – head:
I shouldn’t fail (because it will be embarrassing; because it will make me feel vulnerable; because it will define me as a failure)
I should be successful (in my career, in love, in life, etc.)
One of those voices has to win. Because, in the same way the late Queen Elizabeth II said (will that phrase ever not be weird?) that grief is the price we pay for love, failure is the price we pay for success. Inevitably, the people we herald as success stories will have totalled more failures than most (whether by their own ambitious metrics, or more objective ones: failing to win an Oscar, losing a Wimbledon final). For some, like JK ‘Rejected by 12 different publishers’ Rowling, past failure becomes part of their media personality; others keep it quiet. Ironically, it’s the same strain of heroic set-backs – or the anticipation of them – that can so easily diminish our opinion of ourselves, taking us from the state of ‘I had a failure’ to ‘I am a failure’.
So, how do we avoid falling into this trap?
How to reframe failure: Earning your stripes, experiments & a force for change
1. Being open to failure sets you apart from those who aren’t
If you don’t try, you can’t fail; it’s as simple as that. Trying in the first place, thus putting yourself in a position to fail, sets you apart. It’s hard to give oneself that pat on the back, though - which is why peer support (like this breakfast, but in whatever form you can get it) is important; a reminder that showing up earns you a seat at the real or proverbial table.
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