What if I Fail?

Some people are afraid of failure. I’ve already said that I’m afraid of mediocrity. But that’s me.

Sometimes that fear of failure is so fierce that it is paralyzing. Sometimes, even worse, the fear of failure produces the very thing we fear.

I see this a lot in my clients. They want assurances that their projects will end on time, in budget. So they estimate, estimate, estimate. They postpone making decisions on their project portfolio. What does this do? It pushes out the start date of the project. It guarantees that the project starts late. It guarantees the project will over-run the budget. Their fear causes precisely what they don’t want. And, their indecision costs them revenue, because they didn’t start the project at a reasonable time.

It’s not just managers inside of companies that afraid of failure. We do this in our personal lives, too. We fear failing at a diet, so we don’t start. We gain weight, the very thing we don’t want. Same thing with smoking. We fear being alone, but our behavior pushes away the people who might be our friends.

Instead of framing failure as a binary event, all or nothing, what if we framed failure as an experiment? Then we could consider:

  • This is feedback
  • What do I next? What action can I take next?
  • How do I measure or obtain feedback next?

When we think of failure as a personal failure, we don’t account for feedback. We don’t allow ourselves to grow.

Now, I am not perfect. I do not do this all the time. Ha, no sirree. But, when I do this, the results sometimes astonish me.

For those of you who are in the agile community, you know about the agile conference. It’s big. It’s The Conference for everyone to see and be seen at every year. If you are a consultant, as I am, it’s the place to shake your professional booty.

Back in 2011, I failed at the Agile 2011 conference. Bombed. Disaster. Wrote a blog post about it. Not one of the high points of my professional career. Boy, did I learn a lot.

That LinkedIn group I started as a result of that so-called failure? It’s over 1300 people now. I have learned from the people in that group. They have learned from me. I would never have started that group if I hadn’t failed at that session.

Failure absolutely was an option! I lived through it. It was not very comfortable at the time. I learned from it. That’s when I decided that I was much more afraid of being mediocre than I was afraid of failing.

You see, if I was wrong, at least I was having discussions. I was trying. I had the experimental, the growth mindset. If I was mediocre, I wasn’t trying.

Back in the 10th grade, my French teacher told me he would give me a B if I promised never to speak French to anyone as long I lived. I suspect my French accent is quite bad. Take South Coastal New England and add a little French Canadian (where my French teacher was from) and mix it together. I hear Parisian French in my head. I am sure that’s not what comes out. For years, I let that feedback prevent me from speaking French. No longer. I now say, “Bonjour” and “Adieux” with the best of them. If I could remember more French, I would practice it.

It’s not the failure that’s the problem. It’s your reaction that’s the problem. If you have sufficient emotional resilience, you’re okay. Do we all have that every day? Maybe not. Can we build it in ourselves? Yes.

Ask yourself, “What if I fail?” Can you treat it as an experiment, where you could use it as feedback? Then, take some next steps? Do you think you could fail then? That’s today’s question of the week.

6 thoughts on “What if I Fail?

  1. Debi Z

    That’s so true. Think also of babies and toddlers – every time they fall down they are learning. If they stopped trying after falling down, humankind would be in a pretty bad state!
    It’s not about how often you fail, but how often you pick yourself up after failing, learn from it and move forward :)

    1. johanna Post author

      Debi, you and I both quite good at the picking up, learning, and moving forward, aren’t we? I wasn’t thinking about you when I was writing this post, but I could have been!

  2. Lynn Winterboer

    What a great perspective for today! I am trying to get OUT of the habit of reading my email first thing in the morning, but I didn’t follow-through today… because I was nervous about something and wanted to see if any new information came in about it. Turns out reading this blog, that was at the top of my email, was just what the Universe had in mind for me, I’m sure! Now I’m not nearly so nervous…I’ve replaced that emotion with courage – to step into this day and embrace whatever lessons it has for me. Thanks, Johanna…

    1. johanna Post author

      Lynn, There are many reasons to not read your email first thing. There are many times I write first thing.

      Yay for you! Carpe diem! When you go through the event you are nervous about, it’s hard. No doubt about it. Then, you take stock. You say, what can I do right now? What can I learn from this? Maybe it’s just an experiment? Go from there.

      For me, it’s still hurts my pride, if nothing else. But I have a next step, and that’s what counts. Good luck today (and tomorrow…)

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