Let’s be more open about failing


As I’ve said before, I find ‘failure’ a horrible word. But, let’s be honest. If by ‘failure’ we mean ‘not succeeding at something we aim to achieve’, well, we will all fail sometimes. As mentioned in a previous post on this topic, everyone needs to practice and improve in some areas of their lives, in order to achieve their goals. Therefore, I think it’s pretty important to get a little more comfortable with the idea of failure.

Although I knew I was not comfortable with this topic, I hadn’t realised how uncomfortable exploring it further would make me feel. I realised I spend a lot of time avoiding things where I was at risk of failing. And as a result, I limit myself, and create stress for myself. But the notion of failure – at something more than a very minor matters – does scare me. I have become nervous even writing about it.

Part of my problem, I think, is that I don’t hear a lot about people failing – properly failing, I mean, not just a failure on the road to success.

Am I putting myself at risk by writing about this (I mean, no one wants to read about failing, right?). Maybe. However, when I thought more about the outcome I was seeking, I realised that this risk – this potential failure with my blog – was worth it.

You see:

Do some of us go out of our way to limit the chances of failing?

Yes (speaking for myself, and I know I am not alone).

And, when we do put ourselves out there and try something new, does it matter if we avoid admitting to failure? 

Well, yes, actually it does. Not individually, necessarily, but collectively it creates a false impression and impacts on everyone. I’ll talk about this further.

Is there a chance it might help people become less uncomfortable about failing if I dig into the issue further?

Possibly. This blog isn’t very widely read yet, but there are some people who read it (and thank you). For those who do – I hope it sparks some debate, as I would love more of us to be prepared to take risks – considered risks (I’m not suggesting foolhardy ones).

If nothing else, working through and writing about this topic is helping me to address this issue, and I think that is worthwhile. It might even reflect in some of the risks I am prepared to take to develop and build this blog more – who knows?

So in the light of this, I’ll risk writing about this topic.  Here are are my thoughts about why, as well as sharing our successes, we also need to be more honest about our failures.

Taking a step back – Why is the idea of failing so fearful for many of us?

I’ve said this a lot already, but many of us fear failure. You probably know that public speaking is often listed as most people’s number one fear. Some reasons given are:

  • being judged
  • making a mistake or forgetting what you want to say
  • looking anxious or nervous by blushing, stammering and shaking
  • being rejected (source

In other words, these reasons all link back to being judged by others as a failure. Unsurprising, really. Another site identifies some pretty compelling reasons why failure is such an uncomfortable state of being:

The main fear of failing comes with the disappointment that follows, that feeling that despite your effort, nothing seemed to go as you wished it did, and it causes a feeling such that you might not even want to try again. That is why this is the worst fear of all, the fear or failure is very often used as an excuse to procrastinate, or not do anything to make situations better – “why bother?” and “I’m just not good enough”.

Eminem is quoted as saying:

Nobody likes to fail. I want to succeed in everything I do, which isn’t much. But the things that I’m really passionate about, if I fail at those, if I’m not successful, what do I have? 

Let’s repeat those last words – ‘If I am not successful – what do I have?’

Eminem could have almost said ‘If I am not successful – who I am?’

I think this statement really nails the reason failure is so scary for many of us – no wonder it is.

But a lot of people are open about their failures – aren’t they?

I don’t think so – not really. We do hear a lot of people talk about times they have tried and not achieved the outcomes they wanted, yes. But have they really talked about failing? As Oliver Burkeman writes:

‘no autobiography of a high profile entrepreneur or politician or inventor is complete without several passages in which the author attributes his or her success to a willingness to fail. (Sir Richard Branson is a repeat offender in this regard)’.

As Burkeman notes – high profile people will talk about failing in the context of ultimately succeeded. As I wrote in the last post – that’s not failing, that’s losing (and these are two different things). Where are the stories, within the losing streak – when success is not certain? Admitting to failure without the buffer of ultimate success is very rare. 

Within the IT sector, Caleb Garling recently applied the term ‘fumblebrag’ to the almost ubiquitous sharing of failures, once success is achieved within Silicon Valley. Everything from international conferences to less formal ‘fuck-up nights’ have been springing up in over 90 cities around the world (apologies for the term but that’s what they are called). However, although lots of people are willing to talk, they always end with their successful outcome.

The approach is ‘built on the pious belief that every mistake gets you closer to success, that every No gets you closer to a Yes’.  Apparently the mantra there is “fail fast, fail often”. Oh, with an accompanying assumption – ‘you only need to succeed once‘.

Is it a problem that we don’t want to let others know we are failing?

Well, it’s a problem for me, since, as I said, I am scared of failing. But I’m not alone in this – so are many others. And I think – as do others – that this fear and denial of failure can cause some more significant problems in the long run.

1. Our efforts not to think about failure leave us with a severely distorted understanding of what it takes to be successful.

Obviously, if you don’t try, you won’t succeed. However, in most of the stories we hear, there seems to be a presumption that as long as you try, and are willing to take risks, you are likely to succeed in the end.

But – this doesn’t seem to be true. Based on research by Jerker Denrell (quoted in Burkeman’s book), it was not only those who were successful who were prepared to take risks. In fact, those who persistently failed were also prepared to take major risks and in many cases, had stronger charisma and leadership skills (enough that people who worked for them were prepared to follow them off a cliff into catastrophe).

The people who failed were not always foolhardy, either (although some were) – sometimes things don’t work because of bad timing, the fact that there can only be one winner in some areas, or due to factors outside their control.

Why don’t we hear about those who failed? Because we tend to be interested in why people succeed (because we don’t like failure, as I’ve said – and because we hope to replicate them). So people who succeed gain on-going publicity (whereas the ones who fail may have some level of notarity and then generally disappear, licking their wounds). The exceptions are honourable failures – for instance, acts of extreme bravery or physical prowess (attempting to reach the Antarctic, for instance, or rescuing people from dangerous situations). But not everyday failures – in work, in family life, in relationships.

Over time, this believe becomes more engrained, because the majority of stories we hear are about those who were achieved their intended outcomes. As Winston Churchill is quoted as saying:“History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.” and “History favours the victors”.

Why does this matter?

  • Understanding that trying hard and taking risks is, well, risky, helps build resilience.
  • Understanding that failure is not solely a matter of your abilities, your effort or your self worth – there can be other factors at play too – makes it easier to pick yourself up and start again.
  • Understanding – really understanding this at a deep emotional level – because you have seen and heard other people talk about this, makes it easier to be prepared to give things that might seem a little scary a go.

2. The emotional experiences of failure can be a stepping stone to a much richer type of happiness than can be achieved by focusing only on success.

Burkeman presents the interesting idea that ’embracing failure as failure, not just a pathway to success, might simply feel better than constantly struggling to avoid it’.

That idea might seems weird at first, but less so if you think about it:

  • It is more honest to admit to failures – we don’t have to maintain a facade.Many of us are quite skilled at presenting an image to the world, and possibly also to ourselves (many of us are naturally skilled at ‘editing out our failures’). Keeping up the pretence of very high level success (while madly paddling to keep afloat, or indeed, bailing out a sinking ship, to mix metaphors) would be extremely draining. That’s something I am starting to experience in motherhood – the sharing of struggles can be very helpful.
  • It helps to collapse boundaries that might separate the great from the mere mortals amongst us.I am writing in parallel about real success (as opposed to perceived success) and one issue that arises a lot is how many athletes, as an example, feel a sense of isolation and emptiness after winning. There are not many people who could really identify with them on how winning feels (the ‘what now?’ feeling that some have, feeling that some experience of being held ‘above’ and ‘apart’ from others). We can identify with the steps of failure (and therefore what it really has taken) along the way.Plus – in many areas of life, there may only be one winner majority of people would not be ‘successful’ in the sense of always winning, anyway.
  • It can help us to remember that our goals and our identify are two separate things.If we blur the two, no wonder some of us become perfectionists – our identify becomes attached to success, as Emimen so eloquently expressed.

3. If we are not prepared to acknowledge the chance that something we are doing might not work, we can make the impact worse.

If you are ever in Ann Arbor, Michigan, I would love you to visit a place called GjK Custom Research, North America (if, indeed, it is open to the public – if you are in marketing or product development, you should be able to access it).

It apparently contains aisle after aisle of a single sample of numerous consumer products  released for sale and subsequently withdrawn, deemed ‘failures’. I’ve just posted a couple of my favourites below:

A touch of yogurt
A touch of yogurt??? In your hair??
Why shouldn’t dogs have their own fortune cookies?

Now, my understanding is that most products go through a pretty rigorous marketing and product development stage, and there would have been many opportunities to suggest that, maybe, these were not the greatest ideas. However, these and tens of thousands like them, were released and failed. Why? I don’t know – possibly no one wanted to make a scene, possibly the further along in development, the harder to backtrack?

However, these failed products now serve as lessons for new product developers who visit the research centre. Apparently they are often surprised to find that one of their product ideas is on the shelf, and has therefore been tried and failed in the past. In fact, sometimes their own company has tried the same idea before. But no one knew. 

  • Good can come out of failing if we are prepared to learn from it. 
  • But often we don’t like to keep a record of things that fail – and this increases the risk that we will repeat the failure again.
  • We need to remember what has been tried before – and by whom, and under what circumstances. We need to remember, and learn, from failure. And that means we need to know that it has happened.

The final word

In the light of these reasons, I think there is great value in attempting to overcome my fears and try things that I fear I will fail at (which, incidentally, doesn’t include public speaking, which I quite like, provided I have a microphone).

It’s not a simple matter of accepting the logic of these statements – there are more steps involved in overcoming fears. Many people have written about overcoming fear, better than I can, so I’m not going to duplicate this. I will, however, provide links in the future to information I have found useful.

The main thing to remember is –

If the outcome is worth while, it is worth trying to overcome the fears and barriers to try to achieve it. If you don’t achieve your outcome – well, sometimes partway there is good enough, sometimes the lessons learned are good enough, sometimes it takes you down a path you might not have thought of otherwise.

It does beg the question though – what is worth trying for? What might success look like? A topic for the next post!

Note: I did read quite a lot of books on success and failing. For this post, I drew largely on one book, Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote: Happiness for People who can’t stand Positive Thinking, as I found it the most helpful of those I’ve read (plus I’ve got to admit, I liked the title). If something isn’t referenced here, it has been sourced from this book.

2 thoughts on “Let’s be more open about failing

    1. I agree – I was saying to a friend that writing this has made me think that we probably all need to be a lot more supportive of those who put themselves “out there” and take a risk, as we (in general) are often too quick to judge and criticise or talk behind their backs (maybe not you and I, of course, but others!). It’s something that as a society we should get better at.

      And yes ‘fortune snookies’! (I don’t even like human ones). According to the product description – still on line, even though ‘we don’t know when the product will next be available’, ‘Whimsically packaged in a Chinese takeout-style container, Fortune Snookies are the first pet treat to utilize edible inks, with humorous fortunes for pets and their owners printed on each bite-sized “cookie.” Among the hundreds of witty words of wisdom purportedly authored for the snacks by Fortune Snookies’ brand mascot, Snocrates(TM), are sayings such as “Cats are not chew toys!” and “You had me at ‘Here Boy!'” What discerning dog wouldn’t love this???


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