What do you do when you start to fail?

What do you do when you start to fail? Do you even notice your failure? Does the word “failure” make you wince, avoid, look elsewhere, or feel badly? We have an incredibly weak relationship to failure in our culture…I almost said, “these days,” but the truth is, I haven’t seen a powerful one yet. Sure, some people are better at failure than others and some people talk a big game, but overall, we are weak. Is that a cultural and ingrained or naturally something we avoid? Who knows, but we should have the ability to rise above a feeling like that in order to become better at something.

I have managed a small staff at my horse farm for almost twenty years. The age group ranges from late teens to early thirties, with an average around 21 years old. It is a job category that is problematic and difficult to fill and even more difficult to retain. The pay sucks, quite frankly, and the work can be hard: a perfect combination. It is not the easiest career choice and must be accompanied by a strong connection to purpose to survive. What we have noticed over two decades of more failure than success in the staffing world, is that three months is about the time when the issue of failure starts to creep and create a tipping point for someone new. Longer than a diet but still short. The first week is a blur and filled with, “we don’t do that here” comments more than I’d like to admit. Every facility has its “way” and the only way to figure that out is to do it wrong. We try to prepare people for that. As the dust begins to settle and the newness starts to feel less new, routine takes form to give some relief to the stress of not knowing what the heck to do next.

Everyone is on their best behavior at first, well, most everyone, bosses included. When the energy is filled with survival and anxiety, it is easy to keep that up…but not for long. It is after a combination of fatigue and a tiny bit of security develop that people start to relax and let a more honest view of the self begin to emerge. The problem is that they don’t always know they are starting to let the real self show. It is a slow reveal and because it happens over time, it is less noticeable. When actions become just actions, and not actions to impress, they normalize. If you are thinking this applies to dating, yes, it absolutely does. This is all human nature. The routine helps with saving energy: as they learn the way, it takes less thought and calculation to perform. However, the routine also allows for the brain to relax, and since the brain is always looking for the path of least resistance, then so does the body. Yes, we are wired to find the easiest path from start to finish, this is ordinary and not necessarily bad. And so, yes, it is the person who can regularly muster the out of the ordinary energy to follow a path with more resistance. But more on that another time.

The more we avoid failure, the better we think we look, the more successful we feel, and the more protected our fragile egos (or so we think). I recently wrote a blog (June 22) called “Hiding Failure,” which was an admission, even a confession of sorts, about how I was failing and hiding it. The response was fascinating. Most people referred to how successful I was, how I wasn’t really failing, and that my interpretation was off. Low tolerance for failure, even in someone else. We really need a different way to think about how we feel about failure…and then some tools to work with.

I have thought a great deal about failure, my relationship to it, and how it plays out for not only me, but the people around me. The shift in my life and my work was tectonic after that confessional in June, and especially the relief I felt from not having to hide what I saw as shameful or failure. It has given me a permission of sorts, to speak more of my truth, to be more authentic in my work, and as a result, I feel I am serving people on a deeper level now. There are two parts to this story, well, actually three. One was the admission or connection to the failure and my fear of it. I had to work hard to get to a place where I could tell people I was hiding failure—and then work hard to deal with their responses. There were only a handful of people that said, “Yeah, you feel like you are failing and that sucks. Can I do anything to help? And what are you going to do now?” Having to convince people I was failing was frustrating and so I just didn’t do it. When someone responded that I wasn’t failing, I simply appreciated their love and support and kept looking for my remedy.

The second part to make itself clear was about success: we measure failure because we have a picture of success and if they don’t match, voila, failure. But what if we were wrong about success? How do you define success? If success is the opposite of failure, then you better have a clear picture of success to be able to track a course to get there and then be able to recognize arrival. The vast majority of people I work with and know have NO clear definition for success for themselves. Amazing. Mostly people will respond with how they want to be like so-and-so or have a life like someone else. Unfortunately, that someone else is typically rich and famous: our two main measures for success. This throws us off even more because documentary after documentary shows us being rich and famous is a recipe for disaster. But still… We judge and evaluate success in others in a New York minute, but for the self, eh, iffy at best. This was part of the iceberg I was hiding, my definition of success for myself. On paper, I am quite successful. In my mind, not so much. And not just from a victimized position, but from a frustrated, afraid, and don’t want to miss my chance position. Over the last few months, I have been working to refine and clarify my definition of success and collect a group of people, a tribe quite honestly, to help me get there. I was trying to do it all on my own and that was a big part of my strategy that failed.

Athletes call me all the time with the self-diagnosis of a fear of success or a fear of failure. Well, duh. You are alive so you will have them both. You will fear failure because of the ding to the ego that is hardwired into our competitive, survival of the fittest makeup. You will fear success because of the problem with repeating it, thus ultimately fearing failure, not success. No one fears success, we love success. We fear what follows success. And if you have a foggy or fantasy-based relationship to success, repeating it is definitely terrifying. So, we work to define success because you can’t get there if you don’t know where there is. This is one of the most uncomfortable questions to answer, whether an athlete, a weekend warrior, or a corporate executive. What does success look like? How will you know when you have it? Long pauses and exhalations are usually the responses I get.

We have a hard time with success because of the “ego,” but before you disappear into some Freudian vortex, let me explain why I say that. The moment we experience success is bliss, for sure. It is wonderful, powerful, fills us with an energy and feeling that is indescribable and overwhelming. The hormones of success are addicting and as they course through our bodies, they give us a super-human feeling that is like crack—get me back there as soon as possible. That feeling is powerful enough to motivate athletes to train for hours and hours, countless hours, for the shot at another successful event. Stock traders are known for their dopamine addiction to success and the power trade. So while we think it is all mental or psychological, the physiology is profound. The trick is keeping that from seeping into the ego or sense of self. And that is the third part of my story. I had become my resume. It is so damn easy to lie on paper, to fudge the truth, to manipulate the words, even if the words have some truth to them. Social media is an incredible culprit here and had an impact on me I won’t forget.

I have a love/hate relationship with Facebook and honestly wish I could kick the habit. But that is another story. I use my personal page for personal stuff and a few years ago, decided to only have people I have a personal relationship with on my personal page (if you have tried to “friend” me and I haven’t accepted, see, it’s not you, it’s me). I am “friends” with a few people I swam with in college, even if we aren’t really in touch. I was with my former coach talking about a reunion coming up and mentioned a person I was looking forward to seeing. On FB, her life looks amazing: great kids, great marriage, great career, and looks terrific. What I learned was she was really miserable, having to move back in with her mother after her marriage ended and she was doing a job she hated and that was way beneath her skill set. I was stunned. The energy it must take from her to keep that up…and then I thought about what kind of energy I was spending trying to look so successful. And so, I gave it up and fessed up and felt immediately empowered. I highly recommend it.

What made me think about this now, months later, is watching our latest staff member begin to fail…and not know it or not know what to do with it. Young and in a hurry to be successful, we all confront and make bad decisions. We don’t know they are bad until it’s too late, but that is the necessity of the learning curve. And so, it reminds me to continue to look for my own failure. I am also in the early stages of new things and hadn’t noticed a bit of failure I was approaching. For me, the teeter-totter goes from my ego-driven “how I look on paper” to what my purpose is and how I can be of value to others. Some days the fear grabs me so hard, I feel paralyzed. Then, there are other days when it inspires me so deeply, I feel more alive than ever. But mostly, it is in the middle, with the days needing to be filled with the work to keep me connected to the inspiration, the conversations with the people that help me stay there, and the continuous struggle for balance in the rest of my day! Failure is more of a tool than a terror for me now, thankfully. It is hard work but incredibly valuable. I know you read everywhere about embracing failure and how some industries look for failure first, but at the end of the day, it scares us all. So, figure out how to recover from the moments of fear and uncertainty. For me, it is recognizing the fear-driven reactions, which are usually ego-based. When I hear myself puffing up around someone, I know that has been triggered and I need to come back down to Earth. Then, it is moving from ego to purpose and looking to connect back to what really makes me feel connected and valuable. Lots of deep breaths help, too. I’m not going to tell you to look for failure and try to make yourself fail. You will, so maybe just see if you can figure out how to use it better.

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