That Friend Called Failure
Updated: Jul 24, 2020
What’s the difference between a person who never does and a person who does? A person who never does always waits to feel ready, eternally interpreting the fear of failure as a sign that they are not ready yet. A person who does, just does, in spite of that fear.
A client of mine recently launched an executive coaching event that she had been planning for months. The day would act as a springboard for her new content and a level-up for her brand. I was buzzing for her as the social media updates rolled out. When I asked that evening how she felt, she admitted that while the event was a big success, a little ‘imposter syndrome’ was now starting to kick in on the come-down.
I’d never heard of this syndrome before, so I Googled it and found various descriptions about the fear of being discovered as a fraud and the inability to internalise your accomplishments. Imposter syndrome is believing that at some point you will be revealed as… well, full of shit. I laughed and replied, “that’s me every day!”
Or it used to be anyhow. As the girl who can easily wear her pants inside-out all day long without realising, I’m still secretly shocked when I hear myself owning the room professionally. So I was pleasantly surprised that there is a term, a syndrome even, for that little demon inside my head that still tries to be heard sometimes; am I good enough? What if I fail? In fact I don’t know a single woman who hasn’t battled with self-doubt throughout her life and career, when everyone else around her can see undeniably what a fucking Rockstar she is. Whether it’s feeling like a bad mum or unworthy of a new promotion, for us women, the fear of failure seems to constantly nip at our Louboutins no matter how much we succeed.
And yet, look up the story of any successful entrepreneur or artist and you will find pages of failures that led to their ultimate achievements. Whether you believe in a divine power, a grand design, fate or plain luck, these success stories always demonstrate that without those significant moments of painful failure, the path to success may never have been found. Successful people preach this all the time, as do so many memes and quotes and TED Talks. The internet is rife with inspirational quotes about establishing a better relationship with failure, but when it comes to putting these mantras into action, the struggle is real.
As a brand consultant, many of my clients are start-ups, but often they come to me when their business is merely an idea they can no longer ignore. They ask for guidance on the practicalities of starting, but those early conversations frequently turn into a confidence-building session, because what they’re really seeking is reassurance that they're ready. I listen to them buzz, hear their journey and form a picture of who they are. They are always full of passion, knowledge and experience in areas unique to them and there’s normally a catalyst in their past that has led them to this moment. Despite all this, there is almost always an undertone of self-doubt, more so in women, and the fear of failure fills the room.
And I get it. I do. Starting anything, a business, a marriage, a family, is one of the toughest parts of our journey and the point at which we are most susceptible to procrastination due to the fear of failure. People can talk for years about the same dreams without taking any action, whether it’s travel, health, career or relationship goals, all because the fear of failure is too overwhelming, and a comfort zone, albeit an unfulfilled zone, feels much safer than risking all that raw disappointment and humiliation.
And that's the problem. That is the stickler that memes and inspirational quotes don't cover. No matter how many times we hear that failure is a character-building part of life, very few of us are willing to truly embrace it nor have the resilience for it, because we still associate failure with all the nasties; loss, shame, panic, financial turmoil, unwanted change etc.
Shifting this relationship into a healthy one is a choice, a way of life, and it takes active mindfulness.
A bodybuilder has to tear muscle fibre in order to gain muscle mass. A painful loss has to be endured before the desired gain. This is not an easy or comfortable process. It takes time, physical pain and mental stamina, which is why not everyone achieves the body they desire in the gym. Success in life requires the same process; the same pain, resilience and commitment.
Fearing and avoiding failure is the same as a bodybuilder fearing and avoiding that initial muscle damage, when in actual fact, it's the damage that leads you to where you want to be. Failure is the friend that you didn't want to invite to the party and ends up being the life and soul of it, so instead of making that relationship strained and uninvited, why not embrace it from the offset?
When I started my first major marketing role after uni, I was introduced as the new office blonde bimbo on my first day, and resigned four weeks later feeling completely inadequate instead of hauling them to court. Many successful years later, a major marketing role crumbled around me due to a political and financial minefield that I wasn't resilient enough to avoid. And more recently, I had to succumb to the fact that a painful relationship was over.
Each one of these "failures" could have become a catalyst for giving up and running away, or allowing myself to become overwhelmed by self-doubt and fear (believe me, I came very close each time) but no matter how much those experiences broke me, just like muscle fibres, each one strengthened me and realigned my trajectory for the better.
It's also the failures I feared the most in life that have been my biggest successes to date. Like when I put myself through uni the year after losing mum, fearing that I wouldn’t be able to make friends or concentrate on my course. Or when I almost didn’t turn up for an amazing job interview because I felt totally under-qualified. Or when I set up my business fearing that I wasn't ready even though all the building-blocks were there. Funnily enough, I did exactly what my clients do today and called upon an expert - an established marketing professor - who literally gave me the best advice of my life when it comes to overcoming self-doubt. He said, “as long as you know some things, can learn the rest, and have the confidence to wing it in between, you’ll do fine. But if you wait until you feel ready, you’ll never do anything.” This was a lightbulb moment.
If you want to be able to tell those self-doubt demons to shut the fuck up, change your relationship with failure. The fear is ok, I'm not telling you not to feel it, but the key is to act anyway, regardless of whether you feel ready. Stop waiting until the day that fear no longer exists, because you could be waiting for a lifetime. And, when you do fail (which you will, sometimes) feel it, embrace it, and learn from it. Allow yourself to repair with the peace of mind that you're growing stronger through this experience. If you do that, failure can always be leveraged, whether it’s in the form of delayed success or a different success to that which you intended. If you live by this philosophy, failure becomes your friend that leads you out of your comfort zone to the most incredible experiences of your life, and that's certainly someone to invite to the party.