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What’s so bad about the “F” word?

Librada Estrada

Failure and SuccessNobody likes to have it attached to him or her and we don’t want our project to be labeled as such. In some instances it may cause you to freeze. We dislike the word so much that we spend most of our time avoiding it like the plague—FAILURE! But is it really that bad of a word? On the surface, folks hear it or say it and automatically think negative connotations. I used to think this way as well until I realized that I was not only seeing it as a dirty word but also thinking in absolutes and focusing on it’s definition of lack of success or insufficient.

I would drive myself nuts, and those around me, by trying to think of all the things that could potentially go wrong on a project and prepare for them. Why? Because I did not want others to point out if I had fallen short or if the product/program was not well implemented.

I would create unrealistic expectations for myself that I would spend so much time on the planning that I would postpone the implementing; I would experience analysis paralysis. This caused a lot of anxiety for me.

I would come across as dictatorial and rigid. Rather than keeping the big picture in mind, I would be narrow-minded and fixate on the little things. Sometimes I would be perceived as not being a team player since I would not engage others or ask for help because I feared being seen as not knowing what I was doing. Other times I would come across as not being interested, particularly when I would not speak up in meetings because I was worried that my ideas or questions were not fully formed.

The story that I bought into was that I was preparing, planning and being thoughtful. In reality I was trying to hide being ill informed or avoiding things like having to be in front of others and being open to judgment. I made up a story that if flaws did not come up, I could stay under the radar and not draw attention to myself.

I had also written a script in my head that I could not afford mistakes because of being Latina. I put more pressure on myself to come across as perfect, particularly if I was the only woman, the only Latina or the only person of color on a project or in a meeting. I decided that I needed to present myself well not just for me but for other Latinas as well. Talk about grandiose stories!

What I also realized is that by focusing on avoiding mistakes, I was holding myself back from risking—at work, at home, in my relationships, etc. I would put off crucial conversations or providing feedback as long as I could because I was afraid of not doing a good job the first time around or that I might be wrong.

Fortunately, I started to work with an awesome coach that asked me some powerful questions. As a result, I learned to shift how I perceived mistakes and to see them as stepping-stones and opportunities to improve. I learned to differentiate between failing and being a failure.

Failures hold us back when we are not open to learning from them. By focusing on failure as a bad thing we end up limiting ourselves. It holds us back from receiving feedback and allowing us to be vulnerable and authentic. We are not open to learning and stretching. Apologies do not come easy to anyone and when we cannot recognize our mistakes, it’s almost impossible to say I am sorry in a sincere manner. We end up not even trying and maybe becoming complacent.

Playing it safe contributes to boredom, lack of creative thinking and staying inside the box. If you are a business, it affects your revenue and being able to compete in the market place. As a professional, it affects your performance and development. As a leader, you don’t stretch or inspire others and end up emphasizing that failing is not an option.

Fearing failure also contributes to having unrealistic expectations of your staff and affects your supervisory style. How can your team grow if there is no room for creative thinking or stretching? What is the incentive for someone to admit an error and ask for help if this may be seen as a negative?

Yes, success is important and don’t let fear of failure hold you back from stretching, trying new things and risking a little. To appreciate the gifts from your mistakes and failures, consider the following:

  • Break the cycle— Albert Einstein is quoted as saying, “Insanity is doing the same things over and over again and expecting different results.” Learn from your mistakes. Identify how can you grow from the experience and modify your behavior or process that you use to change your results.
  • Acknowledge failures and move on—We all want to succeed and sometimes we have to stumble or fall down before crossing the finish line. Acknowledge what went wrong, your part in it and then get up and move. Consider them steps moving you toward your goals. If you don’t own it, it will fester and keep you from being able to move forward successfully.
  • Clarify is this F.E.A.R.?—Differentiate between False Evidence Appearing Real (F.E.A.R.) and what truly concerns you. Is your concern real or is it a story that you are buying into and that you are allowing to influence your decisions?
  • Reflect on the following questions: -What is it that scares you about failing? -What stories are you attaching to failing? -What is the worst-case scenario? -What is the best-case scenario? -What are you risking by not trying? -What's possible if you were not concerned about failing? -What are true consequences and which ones have you made up?
  • Learn to say I don’t know AND follow up—Give yourself permission to not always have the answers AND make it a point to take action. Get curious and ask clarifying questions or do some research.
  • Engage others—Reach out and ask for input. Tap into the expertise of others and build on ideas. No one became successful without the help, input or support of others.

Your turn: In the comment section below, share what have you been able to accomplish when you let go of fearing failure.

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