It's ok to fail. You may even learn something in the process!

Updated: Sep 26, 2019



A long, looooong time ago, as a junior consultant, I screwed up badly at work! I wanted to be seen as having everything under control even though I was panicking and had no idea what I was doing. I was terrified of being seen as a failure and didn't want anyone to know how I was messing up - so I kept quiet and dug a very very deep hole for myself! I didn't reach out to my boss in time to alert her to a problem that was cropping up on a project.... until it was way too late!

Well she went ballistic, exactly as I had expected! We spent several sleepless nights sorting it all out..... and when she had calmed down she explained the facts of life to me:

  • that in business, acknowledging what you don't know and asking for help is a good thing, not a failure!

  • that failing to do something first time round/correctly/perfectly does not mean you are a failure!

She applauded me for trying to figure things out for myself, for taking the initiative and for taking a risk, but impressed upon me in the deepest sense, that hiding a mistake has no benefit, but that reaching out and acknowledging failure can result in a better solution and always a lot of learning and growth!

My fear of being seen as a failure had just lead me into a deep dark hole on my own, and that lesson from my boss is one that stays with me to this day!!

We all have a fear of failure at some point or another, in relation to something or the other. "What will everyone say if I don't get it right?", "I will feel so ashamed if I fail", "I am too scared to try in case I don't succeed".

There is no shortage of inspirational talks on TED about fear of failure, and more interestingly the by-product of failing - in almost all instances, the by-products include the opportunity for learning, and passion to succeed!

Fear of failure shows up in many forms:

  • as procrastination - when we procrastinate we put off doing something, often because we are scared to start, in case we don't get it right. By procrastinating we often put off something for so long that by the time we do the task, we haven't got any more time to worry about doing it right and the pressure of the time constraint focusses us on delivery - or the pressure of the time constraint leads us to opt out - both tend to result in anxiety and unnecessary sleepless nights and stress.

  • as perfectionism - perfectionism often shows up as a willingness to only try something if you know you will get it right, and often as a desire to be the best at something. Unfortunately perfectionism often stops people from trying anything at all.

  • as low self confidence - this shows up often in negative self-talk like "I am not going to apply for that job because I will never get it", "Only other people can have the career of their dreams, I couldn't ever do that".

  • as self-sabotage - with self-sabotage, we tend to create our own failure because we can control the outcome. We can control the failure, rather than trying something and failing at it anyway.

In all of these instances we actually set ourselves up for failure largely because we see the goal in its entirety, as an overwhelming thing to strive for, instead of breaking the goal into bite size chunks that are manageable and give us a sense of progress and achievement. It's the old joke: "How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time!".

Our fears can stem from all sorts of things - experiences we have had in life that have told us that getting it wrong is "bad" - a traumatic event, being unsupported, being humiliated. Each time we get feedback that equates failure to "bad" or "wrong", our brain hardwires that feedback and strengthens the neural pathway that says "don't fail, it's bad". The more experiences we have that confirm that world view, the stronger that neural pathway becomes - to the point that it becomes a habit to believe that it is better not to fail, better not to try!

The good news is that our brains like to create connections. It is easier to create a new connection than it is to break down an old connection (see my blog "Your brain is a connecting machine" for more on that).

So what does this mean?

It means that if we look at failure in a positive light and as a learning experience, we can create a new neural pathway that supports us in taking a risk, trying new things and celebrating failure as part of the learning process.

It means that by consciously viewing failure as an opportunity to learn, you can train your brain to try new things, to set goals, to have aspirations and to strive for your dreams.

So when you feel yourself procrastinating, worrying about perfection, talking yourself out of something, or sabotaging yourself, I challenge you to ask yourself how you could look at the situation differently - rather than as a risk for failure, is there an opportunity to stretch yourself and learn?

And when you find yourself making mistakes, getting things wrong, failing - I challenge you to ask yourself what you could learn from the experience and how you could apply that learning to improve, to do better, to do differently.

I love conversations and would love to engage with you on your career and how you are managing yourself and your career like a business.

I believe "managing your career like a business" means having insight on where you want to go in your career, the agility and resilience to change track when necessary, competence to navigate transition points, and self-awareness to manage yourself.

I help you do that through one-on-one coaching, CV and LinkedIn profile writing, topic-specific workshops and a suite of blogs and other materials available on my website. Want more information? Drop me a message and I will get back to you asap.

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