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F*cking up. Making a mistake. Failure.

Just imagining these things is the stuff of nightmares for most of us. Which is really bad news if you want to be successful. Because just as Brene’ Brown says, “You can’t have courage without vulnerability,” you can’t have success without making mistakes and failing. 

Accepting Failure as a stepping stone.

It’s time to change the paradigm of the relationship we have with failures and mistakes. Instead of trying to avoid them, we need to learn how to be more resilient when failures happen. We need to learn how to be braver and actively encourage mistakes (the smart ones and the innocent ones, not the sloppy ones). We need to embrace the lessons in the failures instead of hiding them or beating ourselves up over them. For the rest of this article, I’ll use the word “failure” to include both mistakes and outright failures.

Nothing new in the world has ever emerged without a whole lot of failures preceding it. Thomas Edison famously said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work,” and “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”

Here in Silicon Valley, we have a slightly different relationship with failure, but we’re still far from where we need to be if we want to be wildly innovative. And we need to be wildly innovative if we want to solve the gnarly problems facing the world today. This isn’t news to business leaders. In a recent McKinsey study, 84% of executives consider the future success of their company to be very dependent on innovation, but only 4% of them have identified innovation as a strategic priority. It’s a tricky problem to solve.

In a recent article, we wrote about how to get better at being innovative. Today we want to write about failure resilience. It’s a learnable set of skills, but we’ll have to start with understanding why we react the way we do when we fail or even think about the possibility of failing.

Why Failure manifests in the Brain?

It’s impossible to learn and execute something new without experiencing failure. When we’re learning something new, that usually means that we’ll be doing something differently as a result. Any time we talk about the six-letter C-word (change), our brains start to freak out a little bit. Our Operating System (the critter brain and particularly the limbic system) is hard-wired to keep us safe.

To our critter brain, safe=alive. It is constantly sorting for safety and is responsible for the fight/flight/freeze response when we’re faced with something it considers dangerous. There’s a BIG problem with the Operating System though: the only things it knows for sure are safe are things you’ve already survived. The other big problem with the OS is that it has an exaggerated fear of being ostracized. It’s a throwback from caveman days when being ostracized meant certain death. 

This is why, any time we’re faced with change, we encounter resistance. If it’s something important, resistance will be in the house 100% of the time. The more important the change, the bigger the resistance.

Change is scary for most people, and resistance is just a symptom of fear. 

How can you be Failure Resistant?

Since the OS is clearly faulty, it needs a smart operator who knows how to short circuit its flaws. Here are some suggestions for short-circuiting the system to become more failure resilient:

  1. Name it to tame it. As soon as you notice resistance or fear, name it. Journal about it or tell a friend. Fear can’t stand the light. It thrives in the shadows, in the unconscious or subconscious parts of the brain. Bringing attention to it will help dissipate it. Advanced skill is to communicate with the part of you that’s afraid, get to the root of why it’s afraid, and help it develop a new coping plan. We often help clients with that, until they’re able to do it on their own.
  2. Normalize it. You’re not a weirdo for being afraid of change or failure. It’s normal. But that doesn’t mean you have to let it stop you. What we often do is notice the fear and then make ourselves wrong for it. That puts us in a shame spiral where nothing good happens. Instead, tell yourself it’s a normal knee-jerk reaction. Then take some calming breaths and carry on.
  3. Celebrate small steps. Don’t wait until the end of a big change, celebrate all along the way. When you do, you are deliberately pointing out to the critter brain that you’ve survived something new, so it no longer has to consider that thing a threat. We like to get ridiculous with the celebrations because the critter brain is freakishly good at ignoring new data that doesn’t conform to its world view. We’ll say things like, “Yay, you didn’t run into a saber-toothed tiger! Your head didn’t explode! You’re still ALIVE!”

If you want some support in becoming more failure resistant, reach out to me. I love change, so I hold the intention that change can be fun, and my clients are usually surprised that they do, indeed, have fun. We often say, “What do we say to the God of Fear? Not today!”

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About The Author

Johanna Lyman's picture

Johanna Lyman (she/her or they/them) is the Principal Consultant and Practice Leader for Culture and Inclusion at Kadabra. She is a dynamic, energetic Leadership and Culture coach and consultant with nearly 30 years of experience of leadership development and culture change.

She is adept at combining coaching, training, and facilitation to help clients build sustainably profitable businesses while creating deep meaning in their work. She quickly establishes rapport and creates a container of psychological safety, belonging, and deep trust with her clients and their teams. She believes that inclusion and diversity should be seen as the natural outcomes of building great cultures.

Johanna is wife to the best husband on the planet, mother to an adult daughter, and dog-mom to Petey the Amazing Tripod.

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