Failure. It’s something we fear, avoid and don’t often talk about. But failure actually presents an opportunity for learning, growth and reflection - if looked at from a different perspective. So today we have the expertise of a woman who has transformed how we treat the F word - Elizabeth Day. Sharing her wisdom on how we can all shift our view on failure and benefit from it in the most meaningful ways possible.
How to shift your perspective on failure
Failure is such a demonised concept in modern life. It’s something we often take personal responsibility for, are made to feel ashamed of and aren’t necessarily taught how to cope with. The result? We avoid it like the plague. Staying in our lane to avoid the likelihood of reaching failure.
But Elizabeth takes a different perspective on it - helping us all to see it’s not necessarily something we can avoid but we can control aspects of. “Failure is a fact of life. It happens to us all there’s nothing we can do to try and avoid it and once you realise that it’s very democratising. It’s the great leveller as it happens to all of us….once you realise that if you’re not in control of the fact of failure all you can be in control of is your response to it.” This gives us the back the power, not being defined by our failures but rather by what we do next.
How to deal with failure
So now we know failure is inevitable and all we can do is control our perspective towards it, how do we deal with it? “How you respond to failure is actually the true test of your character and it’s how you build emotional resilience”, Elizabeth says.
When failure happens, it’s many people’s default to feel shame, anger and embarrassment. With our internal critic chiming in with negative thoughts, feelings and emotions. Elizabeth highlights the importance of distancing yourself from those negative thoughts, “You are not your worst thoughts. We all have that internal critic that is constantly telling us that we’re rubbish at what we’re doing and that we’re a failure in our own lives. But actually, those thoughts exist separately from who we are as people.” Once you detach these thoughts from your sense of self, it’s much easier to see the failure objectively.
The second part of the process? Treating every failure in your life as data acquisition. “Think of a scientist who is working on a cure for a terrible disease or a vaccine for a global pandemic. That scientist would not necessarily think that they were a personal failure because an experiment didn’t work. They would think ‘thank you experiment for not working because you’ve eliminated the wrong solution from my enquiries and it can bring me one step closer to getting to the eventual cure.’ And I think that is such a healthy way to look at life.” It again allows you to see your actions and failures as separate from you. Reaping the valuable lessons without feeling the negative emotions that come with failing.
How to manage your expectations
Often failure comes as a result of times we haven’t met our own (or others') expectations of ourselves. “Having a five-year plan for me was making me feel like a failure on account of my own metric…Because for me, failure is when things don’t go according to plan. But sometimes it’s the plan that's wrong or sometimes it’s a plan that was given to us or maybe it was formed by watching too many 1980s movies. And it’s not right for you and who you really are.”
It’s very easy to feel like a failure when grand plans don’t, well, to plan. So, if failure is a feeling you often find yourself within, question your intentions, goals and whether you need to reassess. Part of having goals in life is seeing them match up with what you really want and feeling the joy of achieving them.
How to embrace vulnerability with failure
As we said before, failure isn’t something we’re used to talking openly about. But there is so much power in being vulnerable about failure. “Vulnerability is the source of all true connection…
When one person has the bravery to do that then it means that the rest of us feel safer doing it in return. It’s a great connecting force. Vulnerability not only leads us not only to greater connection with other people but also leads to better self-acceptance.”
Talking about it allows us to not only process our failures but learn from other people too. It’s why the How to Fail Podcast is so successful. Finding the benefit in sharing stories and learning from the mistakes of others so we can forge a different path forward or feel less alone in our struggles.
How to overcome a fear of failing
Lastly, we have how to overcome the fear of failing. We can become paralysed by the worry of failing so much that it keeps our heads below the parapet. So how do we undo that thought pattern?
Start by analysing your fear. Often what we’re fearful of is the unknown. Not knowing what our life would look like if we fail, how we’d feel or what the consequences would be. “Sometimes if we’re fearful of the unknown it's because we’re denying ourselves the opportunity for growth. Because the only space into which you can grow as a person is the unknown.”, says Elizabeth on fear.
Then lean into the unknown fear with constructed pessimism. Think to yourself - what is the absolute worst that could happen. If you take that risk and fail, what’s the worst consequence of that failure? And could you live with it? You might not want to live with it but could you? The vast majority of us would be able to live with it. “If you exist in a world where the worst is possible, you also have to exist in a world where the best might happen. So then think about what the best consequence might be and then think how might I feel, what would the consequences of that be? The reality is that it’s probably going to be somewhere between the worst and the best. And you can definitely cope with that.”
Finally, taking the risk itself. Leaping into the unknown is the hardest part, so what do you tell yourself during those times? Elizabeth has some wisdom to share, “Sometimes you have to take the risk to be true to yourself. You can take the risk. You can take the fear. Because often what lies on the other side of that is space for so much more opportunity than otherwise you would’ve ever come across. Feel the fear and do it anyway. Acknowledge that fear is sometimes a signifier of an opportunity to grow.”
So now we’ve covered a how-to on every aspect of failure, we hope you’re primed and ready to take steps toward reframing failure as a power for positive change. Want to see Elizabeth’s PepTalk in full? Join our weekly subscription service. Or, if you’d like to book Elizabeth to help your team change their perspective on failure, get in touch with our team.