Failure comes in all shapes and sizes and in recent years a number of businesses and organisations have spoken out about the importance of getting better at embracing failures and mistakes.
This is thanks to the work of entrepreneurs like Eric Ries, author of The Lean Startup and more recently, Ed Catmull, Co-Founder of Pixar and author of Creativity Inc. who have helped us to understand the importance of failure in relation to validated learning and business leadership.
Whilst these works have helped to rationalise the ideals and values of forward-thinking business and leadership models, how we process the pain associated with our mistakes, failures and falls has remained more allusive.
Brené Brown gets to the heart of this issue, literally, in her most recent book, “Rising Strong” looking at the maladaptive and destructive behaviours we adopt to cope with the pain of our 'face down in the arena' moments, and how we can learn to pick ourselves back up in a constructive and meaningful way.
Since 2010 Brené Brown has been an ambassador on the world stage for the virtues of vulnerability and imperfection with the second most watched TED Talk of all time: The Power of Vulnerability and the release of her first book The Gifts of Imperfection, a New York Times Best Seller.
She posits that in order to do great things in any aspect of our lives and live a more fulfilling life, it is necessary to accept ourselves and let our guard down. Part of the challenge of this is that we also become more vulnerable to falling. These falls involve intense negative feelings of shame, hurt and fear - and coping strategies often involve creating distance from this pain.
One big problem and opportunity Brown discusses in 'Rising Strong' is around our unwillingness to sit with the pain of failure in relation to the stories we tell ourselves - stories that are largely full of assumptions we make based on our beliefs, fears and insecurities.
Stories, that also, if we listen to them, provide us with a great deal of insight about ourselves and how we can affect change in our lives.
For instance, think about the story you might tell yourself if the following were to happen:
You’re in a meeting about your favourite work project. You are particularly passionate about this project and spend time thinking about it even when you’re not at work. Overnight you had some ideas about the project that you believe will help propel it forward and you are excited to share them.
It’s a busy meeting with lots to discuss so you wait until the team has talked through the meeting agenda to share your idea. As you are midway through making your point, your manager interrupts you and explains that she has to run to another meeting and asks if it can be discussed next time.
What would you feel just after this happened?
Some of us might feel self-conscious and embarrassed or begin telling ourselves that our idea was dumb or that we shouldn't have spoken up in the meeting.
Perhaps some of us might think that our manager was arrogant and thought her time was more important than the project or anyone else’s time including ours.
There are an endless number of stories we could tell ourselves about this situation and this is part of the problem. The amount of information we have is not enough to understand anything more than the fact that the manager needed to go to another meeting and has asked to discuss the idea 'next time'.
Brown explains that bringing the stories we tell ourselves into our conscious awareness is a crucial part of processing the situation. She recommends writing a “shitty first draft” of what is going through our minds - a sort of childish spew of words that come from our head as we're sitting with pain. Things like “My manager is stupid and hates all my ideas.”
This process of scrawling down words onto a page helps us to see our thoughts and our pain and become more curious about what’s going on with us internally. It also gives us something concrete to look at after we’ve had some time to calm down and reflect on this situation with greater awareness.
This also leads us to take responsibility for our own feelings about the situation instead of, for instance, blaming the other person for how we felt.
Let’s say, that on reflection we decide to have a chat with the manager to find out why she chose to interrupt in the meeting and find out what she thinks about our idea.
We say to the manager:
“I was a bit thrown in our meeting yesterday and the story I keep telling myself is that you didn’t like my idea and wanted to shut it down because your next meeting was more important”.
By saying “the story I keep telling myself” we keep the conversation on our side, and take responsibility for our thoughts and feelings. We've also give our manager the room to address the issue and explain her perspective without putting the blame squarely on her.
Rising Strong is on the top of my books to recommend list, but if you don't have time to read or listen to another at the moment, it's definitely worth listening to Brené Brown's chat with Dominic Frisby on the Virgin podcast about vulnerability, shame, failure and the stories we tell ourselves here.
Whether our failures are big or small, putting a wall up, blaming others or the situation and letting our insecurities grow is not helping us to avoid this in the future. The fact is, the more we can learn now, the less likely we are to come up against the same failures over and over again.
We make up stories that reinforce misguided beliefs about ourselves and the world, because, in the short-term it is easier and less painful. What we end up missing out on is the opportunity to make the necessary changes to rise up stronger, wiser and happier than we were before.
As a recovering perfectionist, I find mistakes and failures scary, most of us do, but I'm learning to sit with the pain rather than try and run away from it.
Whilst for a number of years I've understood the rationality of seeing failure as an opportunity to learn, having tools to sit with my insecurities and shame has helped me to begin building the emotional resilience required to create positive changes in my work and my life in general.
Brené Brown’s name is, well, big, and her books are bestsellers. I think some of us are inclined to be mistrusting of a person whose ideas become so popular and mainstream - even if we're not exactly sure on what these ideas are.
I like to call it the Oprah-effect or being “Oprahfied”. I’m definitely someone who is known to shy away from ideas and concepts that become a sort of fad - and I think this intuition is useful but can lead me to throwing the baby out with the bathwater from time-to-time.
Brown’s efforts to convey how she conducts her research, and her discussion of the insights and limitations of her approach set her apart from the 'Dr' Deepak and Phil-s of the world.
Brené Brown, like Alain de Botton, has the rare ability to straddle the worlds of mainstream “self-help” and academic research to create thought-provoking, valuable insights about human nature that sticks with us. As such, she has enlightened people around the world and will continue to enable generations of people to enjoy a more enriched life.