“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life.” – Anne Lamott
That sinking feeling you get in your stomach. The presentation, the meeting, the webinar, that you carefully prepared and planned for: it bombed. And not just a little, it really stunk up the place. (Or at least that’s what you tell yourself)
You’re embarrassed and mortified. You’d like to crawl into bed and pull the covers over your head, and forget about the rest of the day, week or month; bury your face in your favorite junk food while binge watching your current guilty Netflix pleasure and completely zone out; or disappear to the nearest desert island until it’s safe to be out in public again.
We can get so down on ourselves when we mess up.
As products of western culture and education, many of us are programmed to judge ourselves harshly when we make a mistake.
And not just a little dab will do: for many of us, the judgement we mete out on ourselves brings on a full-fledged shame attack.
All we can see is what we are doing wrong instead of the many things we are doing right.
The F Word
I’d love to redeem a word in our language – the “F” word.
No, not that one (though it has its merits as well, and my family would tell you I’m in the frequent flyer club for that one as well) but this one:
How ‘failure’ stops us
The problem with labeling missteps or mistakes as failure is that it stops us: we’re less likely to take risks, and we don’t learn from what just happened.
If we frame making a mistake into all-encompassing judgement against our character, we are less likely to try something new next time.
When something doesn’t go the way we expect, if we overly criticize ourselves and let shame enter the equation, we are less likely to be able to harvest the learning that’s ripe for the picking.
If we call it failure, we dive into what appears to be the safety of the covers, old habits and avoidance.
And as you’ve probably figured out by now, procrastinating and escaping isn’t usually associated with making big and significant change in the world.
Why I want you to fail
What I know about failing is that it means is I’m trying: usually something new and something I’m not good at. Failing also means I’m doing something, instead of just thinking about doing it.
So, for the sake of what we want to create in the world, let’s embrace failure as fast learning.
Or better yet, let’s stop worrying about getting it right in the first place.
Because the truth is, especially with the work of social change, if the answers were known, if we knew exactly what we were doing at all times and could completely predict our success, it would be done already.
How to fail better
- Know yourself. What are you good at? What’s your growing edge? Know and utilize your strengths. At the same time, you have to continue to expand at least slightly beyond your comfortable range in order to grow. Behavioral scientists believe that we do best when we have stretch goals just slightly outside of our comfortable reach.
- Trust your own data. Success for you is your own definition; it doesn’t belong to anyone else. Know what constitutes success based on your own values and goals.
- Do it now: don’t wait. We need to, as the writer Anne Lamott says, write shitty first drafts. Whatever that means to you, in your context: please let go of perfection (it doesn’t exist), and just get it out there.
- Get curious. When you fail (and you will, because you are a human), be willing to put down the armaments of judgment and get curious about what happened. Bring only your most loving and curious self to examine and learn from the experience.
- Begin again. And again. And again. We aim towards a great horizon but we can only do what is in front of us today.
In the Comments below, it’s your turn!
What helps you recover when you make a mistake?
How could reframing failure as fast learning help you do more good in the world?
For more insight into what’s important you, including your values and vision, download my Road Map tool here!
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