How does it feel when you fail at things?
For most of us it leaves us with challenging feelings and can stop us from taking further risks.
However, without failure we can't learn.
In this episode Jean Balfour shares her own experience of failure and what she has learnt about befriending failure as a part of growth.
Hi everyone, and welcome to this episode of Making Sense of Work. You may have noticed that there's been a pause in episodes for the podcast. Today I want to talk to you about what happened and how I found myself saying that I had failed. At the beginning of 2022. I set myself the goal of recording and releasing 52 podcast episodes, one per week. I was pretty determined and I was doing really well until about six weeks ago, as I talked about in a previous episode, about what to do when work hard, it seemed my workload overtook me. And this project, which has been a really big personal project, found itself on the floor. Once I saw that I was struggling to do the podcast on top of everything else I was doing, I really panicked. I set myself this target, this goal. It was a very personal target. Not many people knew about it. It was my own goal, a plan for me, a challenge to myself. And here I. Failing so over the past few weeks, as I've anguished about this, wondering if I'd started yet another project I couldn't finish, I noticed just how punitive I was being with myself. I was really criticizing myself about a goal that I had set for me, and I started to share my concerns with a couple of people close to me, and they were like, yeah, it doesn't matter. Move it to fortnightly. But actually, it still really mattered to me that it was weekly. So I finally let myself off the hook, recorded a few interviews that will go out in 2023, and then decided to let it go. But I couldn't stop thinking about it. I couldn't stop thinking about this idea of failure. Why was I seeing this as a failure? Instead of looking back and looking at the 34 episodes that I'd published, the 3,500 listens that had happened. Why was. Criticizing myself and seeing myself as a failure. So I really became curious about this and this podcast is an episode that really links to this curiosity. I'm going to share my thinking about failure and some more of my own experiences of failing, and then how I think we can see failure through a new lens, because I know for sure that if we are not failing, There's fewer opportunities to learn. Things are not gonna happen. We're not gonna progress. If I hadn't set out to do 52 podcasts this year, maybe there would've been none. Failure is taking a risk. It's taking an opportunity, and every failure gives us this opportunity to also ask, what's my lesson here? What am I learning here? So let me tell you another story of personal failure. This is a really big one for me and one that makes this current sense of internal failure seem quite small. This happened to me nearly 10 years ago now at the end of my Big Coach training. This was a brilliant training that I was doing at Ashridge Hult in the uk. I had valued this training enormously, and I'd taken my time to complete it. I'd taken a lot of time to get to the final assessment. The final assessment was a situation where we were to coach someone, someone we'd never met before in a room with a camera. and then in the next door room, our group and our assessors were sitting there observing the coaching. So it's pretty high pressure. I was incredibly nervous going into this assessment. There was a lot riding on it for me. I needed the accreditation for my work, and I also really didn't want to let myself down in front of the group. So I was in this room with the camera and my coaching client. I was ready for the 20 minute coaching session, and then right from the beginning of the session, I knew I was gonna mess it up. I got more and more anxious, and after the 20 minutes I knew that not only had I failed the assessment, I didn't need them to tell me that I had actually failed the person I was coaching. And this felt. Such a public failure. I was really devastated and I spent a lot of time over the next few days in tears. I was in a real mindset of I am a failure. People are judging me, and really lots of beating myself up saying things like I can't coach, and how did I let it get so bad, and what am I gonna do now? However, As I began to pull myself back together, I really went back over what had happened to me. Why had I failed? What part had I played in it, and what part had the coaching program played in? How come I wasn't ready? How come I was prepared for the session and yet not prepared? How could I have been better prepared? As a result of that, I kept asking myself then and during a subsequent coach training, how could this have been done differently? How could I have been supported differently? And if I was to teach coaching, how would I do it? And hence our coach training program was born. I really know that without that failure and the learning and the years after that, from my reflection on it, I wouldn't have known how to create. Part of what we have now, a central part of the creation of our program is to create a very safe. Learning environment where even perceived failure is supported well by our faculty to help people work through it. There is a pass fail element of our program, which is also a coaching assessment. I can't protect people from that. We have to do it. It's part of going through the accreditation, but we can look at how we support them as much as possible. We can look at how do we prepare people to be ready for. So my own experience of this and lots of other failures is that they hold loads of learning. And this, my most public failure led to my biggest output to date. And yet so often we try to avoid failure. We see it as a slight against ourselves, but of course, avoiding failure. Means that we don't try things. Those of us who are perfectionists are very inclined to try and avoid failure because it protects us from difficult feelings, but it also protects us from learning. If we are not stepping out of our comfort zone, stepping into difficult situations, we are not creating opportunities for learning. And of course, also failure. Christine Blakely, who created Spanx once said that her father asked her every day what she had failed at that day over dinner. He understood this. He understood that trying things and failing was a key to success. So it's true. We all have to try things and fail. We know from lessons in sport, for example, that people know they're not gonna win a swim race every time, but every race is an opportunity for learning even if they feel they've failed. We know little children when they're learning to walk, they can't walk if they don't get up, fall over. Get up again. And unless we are taking these risks and trying new things, we can't learn what's possible. We can't find what is possible for us in our lives unless we are prepared to step out of our comfort zone. We can't grow but that's a problem because we're afraid of failure. The thing is that when we fail at things, it actually doesn't make us a failure. It means we tried things and they didn't work, and then we can try something else. But so often we say when something's failed, I am a failure. And so we retreat and we stop and we become more risk averse. One of the things I think that stops us taking risks and creating the possibility of failure is our fear of feeling things that we don't want to feel. There's an idea about fear that all fear is a fear of emotion. And with failure, we are frightened off the feelings and emotions that we might experience when we fail. Maybe if we understood those feelings more, maybe if we were more open to feeling them, we might have a bit more courage. Some of the feelings that I associate with failure are things like shame. So we know Brene Brown's written beautifully a lot about shame. She describes it as this intensely painful feeling. Or experience of believing that we are flawed, therefore, unworthy of love, belonging, and connection. This is powerful. So if I fail, I may ultimately be afraid of this feeling of shame and ultimately feeling that I'm unlovable or I can't belong, and yet each failure is only an experience. It doesn't hold that huge power that we give it. Other feelings that we might experience are blame. I can blame myself and blame others and then feel guilty about blame. We feel embarrassed. Particularly in this very public example, it felt very embarrassing. How will others see me? There's a big disappointment. Think about a promotion that you went for that you didn't get, or a job that you applied for, that you didn't get, and how that feeling of disappointment is there. There's also anger and anxiety and so on. So these feelings and the fear of feeling these feelings can stop us from taking risks, can stop us from moving forward into experiencing failure. So we hold back. And yet, if we hold back, as I've said, we are not taking these risks. We're not creating opportunities for growth, for learning, for achieving new things. We can't experience the positive emotions of trying and succeeding if we haven't tried and failed a few times. Brain Brown said, life is about daring greatly. It's about being in the arena. So if we can acknowledge that these difficult feelings are potentially going to happen to us, if we can see them as natural, we can feel 'em. We can make room for the disappointment or the shame. We can journal about them, we can process them, and then we can pick ourselves up. And move on. We can say, okay, I tried something. It didn't work. It doesn't mean I'm a failure. It just didn't work. We can allow ourselves 24 hours to wallow in the failure and then process it. Then come out of it and say, okay, that didn't work. I need to try something else. We can learn from it. We can work out what didn't work and why it didn't work, and we can try again or try something different. But the fear of failure. Au stop us doing things, and then the failure au stop us from moving forward. Somehow we have to allow ourselves to feel that vulnerability of failure and then go all out. Sometimes when I'm coaching people and they're thinking about a job that they really want, they're resisting applying for that job because they're frightened of not getting it. But of course, if you don't apply for the job, there's no chance of getting it. And so this is. Saying, okay, I'm gonna go all out. I'm gonna risk the failure, and then if I fail, I'll work through those feelings of failure and I'll pick myself up again and I'll apply for the next job. Have us think about where you are now. Where is fear stopping you from doing things? It might be holding you back from applying for a role or talking to a senior about a project idea. It might be asking for promotion, starting your own business. Starting a podcast, in my case, it might be the fear of saying something wrong in a meeting. Each of these fears is a fear of the emotions that we'll feel afterwards, and we can deal with those emotions, we can deal with it. So it's worth leaning into the fear of failure and having a go. Last year I had the opportunity to put some of this thinking about this learning into practice. I was going for my master certified coach. This process involves having coaching sessions with willing clients, people who are willing to be recorded during the coaching session, and then sending the recording to my mentor. To review, I needed two recordings that we were both sure would pass, and I recorded about 20 to get to the two. And then Melissa, my mentor, would listen to about, uh, 10 of them. She listened to 10, and every time, for eight of them, at least, she would say, yeah, you aren't there yet. The thing is, I had to fail every time and I had to learn from each failure, and this was such a learning. For me, because I was so shell shocked, I think from my big failure previously, but each time I got feedback, I worked out what I needed to do differently and I kept moving forward. So the thing is that I had to fail every time because I had to learn from the failure. I needed her feedback on where I wasn't reaching the mark in order to improve, in order to deepen my own coaching. And this was, of course, a bit of a painful process, and it reminded me of my big failure in the past that each time it got easier. Each time I saw it as an opportunity to try things. And each time it made me a better coach. Each time I worked with somebody and Melissa gave me the feedback and I listened to the feedback and I thought, ah, I can do that differently, or I can be differently. I still hear that voice from Melissa. I hear her feedback in coaching sessions now, and it helps me to think differently, to be differently with the clients I'm with. So without that opportunity to keep failing, to keep learning, I wouldn't be the coach I am today. So if you are struggling with this, if you are listen to this and you are still thinking, oh, I'm really struggling with the fear of failure, or maybe you are struggling with feelings about something you've failed at, here are a couple of practical things that I think you can do to help you with this, to help you think about. Failure in a different way. The first is that when we fail, it's a big opportunity for self-compassion. And the three strategies that are identified with self-compassion are compassion for one's self seeing our common humanity that is seeing that in life. We all fail at times. Things go wrong, and that's a part of the human condition and practicing mindfulness. And that links to what I said earlier about making room for the difficult emotions. Allow them to come up, allow those feelings of disappointment to emerge and process it. And then there's a really practical exercise that you can do, which is one that I use often as a tool that comes from the brilliant book, the Happiness Trap. And this is a three step process. I'm gonna talk you through this process now. So if you are noticing yourself with this statement, I am a failure, write that down. Write down. I am a failure. And then rewrite it, and this time write down. I'm having the thought that I'm a failure. And then finally write down. I notice that I'm having the thought that I'm a failure. Even as I say this, I feel myself separating from this idea that it's me who is a failure, that I'm the failure. I see myself as somebody who had a go risked failure and learnt from it. No one is actually a failure. We're all humans. Seeking to do our best in the world and having to take some risks along the way. I really encourage you to think about failure, to embrace it, to open yourself up to the difficult emotions, and then to take a few risks, step out of your comfort zone and see what's possible.