Tripping and not getting up still remains our core fear
We have grown up on a steady diet of Fail Tales. Consider all the adages:
Failure is the stepping stone to success.
Fail, fail and then succeed.
We are all failures — at least, the best of us are.
Failure is the condiment that gives success its flavour.
Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.
And this priceless one from the beauteous Marilyn Monroe:
Just because you fail once doesn't mean you're gonna fail at everything.
All these sage sayings contain more than a kernel of truth. Why then, do most of us react the same way to failure on the personal or professional front: with pounding hearts, clenched stomach, a light film of sweat on our brow? Or with a studied insouciance that does a bad job of covering our anxiety?
In an attempt to defang it, the word has even been given a sardonic twist, as in ‘epic fail’. Despite that, fear of failure is a very real and damning emotion. This fear has us shying away from anything that looks chancy, dangerous, fraught with risk. This gives rise to self-defeating thoughts which, in turn, lead to self-defeating behaviour. And before we know it, a pattern has set in.
I am talking of the aam admi here, of course; the truly smart people seem to have studied failure up close and personally, and what’s more, they seem to have the failure package deconstructed. They trip, they fall but they get up, dust themselves and move on. They don’t spend too much time brooding; what they do is introspect on just why their endeavour failed. In fact, techies have their own conference titled FailCon, to study individual `epic fails` and rise above them; there was even a FailCon event held in Bangalore last year.
As for the rest of us, we live with our failures big and small. We carry them like awkward chips on our shoulder. Some days, we can be objective about all the wrong things we have done; at other times, we flagellate ourselves mercilessly, convinced that we are born losers. The fear of failure keeps us always anxious, playing safe, acting in self-defeating ways and generally stunting our own progress.
Fear is a natural response to threat, so we obviously see failure as a threat. Caught in this fear warp, we forget that life is not infallible, that to realise one’s full potential, one has to factor in many a fall. Using failure as a motivating factor won’t come easy or overnight, it needs to be inculcated.
Here is one basic inculcation chart.
Learn to look at failure with a charitable eye. Okay, you tripped. Big deal. It happens. There is absolutely no need to drown in guilt. Get a grip and move on.
Learn to look at failure with humour. This won’t happen overnight but eventually, you will be able to smile ruefully at how you went wrong. And with that smile will come the lesson learned from that fail.
Don’t go into denial. It’s a comforting thought to pretend what happened didn’t happen or at least, didn’t happen to you. Except, you can’t run away forever.
Get a clear perspective on failure. If what you have done is too big to cover up, come clean about it. Subterfuge will work against you. Acknowledge the mistake, promise it won’t happen again. And keep that promise.
A lot of fails, both minor and epic, happen when you are under pressure. Ergo, learn to handle pressure and not go under.
Don’t let failure push you onto the safe route. Trial and error still yields the best and most satisfying results.
Learn to handle criticism. It really is not about you. Don’t take it personally; instead, look for the kernel of the critique and work out how best to set things right. Because setbacks are really tools of learning, if you know how to wield the tools.
Go out on a limb. If you don’t have it in you, cultivate it. The world over, if people didn’t go out on a limb, they wouldn’t have become pioneers, leaders, achievers.
Don’t become a feedback resister. Those are the people who are brought to their knees by failure. Become a feedback absorber instead, the kind who ask themselves just what they can take from this feedback.
If you fail, remember it doesn’t reflect on your competence. It was just a hurdle that tried to chip at that competence. The truly competent will soon be on their feet again. What’s more, they will go on to add more skills to their competence bank.
Don’t link failure with self-esteem. Everyone trips up, everyone has tripped up and everyone will keep tripping up. These are temporary stumbling blocks, they definitely don’t define the individual.
Absorb the fact that life is all about progress and no progress comes without some built-in pitfalls. Become good at spotting the pitfalls early enough to avoid them. Learn to fall lightly if you just cannot help falling.