When I work with clients one of the primary things that I hear at some point is a statement that goes something like this. “I know I should try and do these things, but it’s hard, and what happens if I don’t succeed? Then I’ll fail.”
Embedded in that statement is a very simple premise, the idea that failure is bad.
As the clients continue to talk it becomes clear that not only is failure bad, but it’s often one of the biggest things holding people back from genuine change.
But what is failure?
I ask this question all the time and I get a variety of responses ranging from ones that align fairly closely to the dictionary definition, and others that go even more extreme.
At the risk of sounding a bit pretentious, the definition of failure according to the dictionary is when something stops working, a lack of success, or falling short. If we use this definition it makes sense why so many people struggle with the idea of failure, because it’s the opposite of success. If I want to be successful, then that means that I must avoid failure at all costs. It seems perfectly logical and reasonable if we look at it from that lens.
When it comes to human behavior, learning, and psychology, we see a different picture start to emerge.
Failure is a fundamental part of life. From the moment we are born we are set up to fail. New parents experience the joys of this process when they watch their children start to try talking or walking for the first time. It takes many attempts for the child to get it right and to succeed. And eventually, when they do, the face of everyone watching lights up with an excitement that’s almost contagious, even the child will sense something good is happening, and will usually laugh or giggle in excited happiness.
This process came not in spite of failure, but because of it. Each time the child tried to speak or walk and failed they learned something new and then improved upon it.
As we continue to get older this message is reinforced. Most of us have had an encouraging parent, family member, teacher or coach encourage us to keep at something. Especially as small children. There is an understanding that young children, especially, will need to try and fail at something a few times (sometimes many times) before they eventually succeed.
This mindset also starts to reinforce concepts about our world and environment. For example, the child who disobeys their parent, and touches the hot pan fresh from the stove learns a valuable lesson about safety and the importance of listening to warnings provided by those more experienced than us.
These experiences are often considered to be relatively positive. They help to shape us as we grow and for the most part, this sort of learning is encouraged. We want small children to try things, fail, and then try again. We want to see them eventually succeed and experience the joy of what that feels like.
So where does the fear come from, and why does this positive experience become so terrifying?
At some point, the concept of failure, and the way it is presented changes. This often happens, though not exclusively, through going to school. Where all of a sudden your progress is measured by the grades that you bring home, and what is the lowest grade you can get? An F. This letter grade, to many people, represents failure.
As I thought about writing this, I tried to research and see if that was true and alas I was not able to find a definitive answer. If you can find one, kudos! Treat yourself to something nice!
Regardless, as we are introduced to this concept our perception of failure changes to become something that we strive to avoid, instead of embracing.
This can become so ingrained in our heads that even talking about the concept of failure, causes some clients to break out into a nervous sweat and their bodies start to tense up.
It’s no wonder then, why many students have test anxiety or hate school. School, tests, and learning new subjects, all come with the risk of failure. The risk of not performing to a certain standard. This risk is not imaginary, it’s very real and comes with the concept of a report card and the idea of a “permanent record”…something that will forever show that at one point in our lives, we failed.
Often this fear becomes closely tied to another concept, a worry about making mistakes. After all, what is a mistake if not a smaller failure inside of a larger concept? So now not only are we trying to avoid failure, but now we can’t make mistakes because if we make too many then we might fail. We can’t have that.
The truth is that mistakes and failures are some of the most powerful learning resources that we have and what’s better, they come at no cost.
There is no tuition for making a mistake, no subscription model, or one time lump sum payment. Mistakes, well they just sort of happen to us naturally. Think about some of the greatest inventions that we have today. Things like cars, cell phones, computers, even life saving medicines like penicillin. Those were not achieved on the first try. Instead, they were the result of multiple failures and mistakes. Each time the people working on them went back to the drawing board, and attempted again to learn from what had gone wrong previously.
A world without failure, or without mistakes would be a world with no innovation. No challenge. No growth.
If that sounds unpleasant, then you might be asking; “How do we overcome this fear? What do we do instead?”
I’m glad you asked!
Instead of fearing failure and mistakes, I encourage clients to embrace the idea of setbacks (I would say embrace failure but…I don’t control the global lexicon and changing a definition as one person is tough!).
This mindset involves simply looking at what you are attempting to do and recognizing that there is a very good chance that you will not succeed on the first attempt. That you may not even succeed on the 10th or 20th attempt. Instead of viewing those tries as failures, I encourage clients to learn from each of those experiences and use them as a tool to grow.
What encapsulated this idea for me, came from a place that is probably surprising to some. It came from video games. I grew up in the era of home game consoles, and like just about every kid my age, I had one. The older I got the more I gravitated towards complex and difficult games even into adulthood. I would spend hours throwing myself at a Boss encounter, only to die and get sent back to a checkpoint to try again.
Where others saw failure, I saw an opportunity. With each failed attempt I learned something new, either about myself or about the game. Each time, I got another step closer to the ultimate victory…even if sometimes it didn’t feel like it. Now, some might say that this doesn’t show anything about learning. They might say that the law of averages dictates that if you attempt something enough times you will eventually get lucky and succeed, which is a fair criticism.
However, when I went back to those experiences, replaying the games…I discovered that the sections of the game that had given me hours of trouble before were now much easier.
Things that took me well over 20 tries, I could now accomplish in one or two. Conversely, I sometimes found that encounters where I had gotten lucky in that first go around took me much longer the second time through, because I hadn’t needed to learn those sections.
The other reason that I prefer to use the term setbacks, outside of finding it difficult to change the global lexicon, is that a setback is not final.
When most people hear the word failure, they think of something that is over. You tried, you failed, end of story. When you hear the word setback, you think of a bump in the road. Something that is a difficulty, but also something that can be overcome and worked through.
When we embrace setbacks, we embrace that whatever it is in life we are doing or attempting to do, is a process. We accept that we will likely come up short, but that we will keep pushing forward learning continually from those prior efforts. We start to see those setbacks not as negative experiences, but as positive ones. We are able to start working towards change.
With that in mind, what happens to the idea of failure? Well, to put it simply, failure (my own personal definition) is what happens when we decide to ultimately and finally walk away from something.
Not because we have stopped being interested in it, or we no longer want it or find it important, but because we no longer wish to try.
To be clear, there is nothing inherently wrong with this either. Or with trying something new, realizing that it’s not for you, and stopping. Both of those can be just as valuable.
But when we view failure as the moment we ultimately walk away from something then it becomes something that we have more control over.
If I want to learn to draw, then I only fail at it when I choose to walk away from it, which means…it’s up to me. The thousands of poorly drawn stick figures? Those aren’t failures, those are my setbacks, my attempts to learn and get better. Even if I walk away from it for a week, a month, or even a year or more…if I choose to go back to it, it’s still not a failure. Just a setback, even if it’s potentially a very long setback.
In reading this, think about the things that you want from life. Think about the things that you have already achieved. My guess is that some aspect of this resonated with you. That you looked at this and thought “Okay yeah…that does make sense. It did take me trial and error to figure some things out.”
Now…look at those things that you want to change and want to do differently. If the fear of failure is holding you back, what would happen if you looked at it with the mindset that in attempting to change you will naturally experience setbacks? Likely the task feels less daunting and less intimidating, it becomes manageable.
With all that said, change is not an easy process and it’s not always painless. Change is often scary, emotional, and difficult, but it’s also worth it. If you are struggling with something, and feel like you want to make a change and need help please reach out.
Just like failure is not a bad thing, neither is asking for help. When I mentioned those inventions above, it’s also important to remember that it is extremely rare in history for something to be in the hands of just one person. Almost always there was a team of people that contributed to the success of something, and the same is true for other areas of life. Therapists, friends, religious leaders, family, teachers, coaches, etc. can all help us on the road to change, and to making our lives be what we want them to be.
Please reach out to Solid Foundations Therapy if you feel like there is a change you want to make but are struggling with figuring out how, and especially if you’re worried about potentially failing. Our therapists are happy to help give you a safe place to work through those setbacks and help you learn from them to move forward. Visit our website at www.solidfoundationstherapy.com or give us a call at 630-633-8532 today!