Yuck.  Seriously…just…Yuck.   Failure feels crappy.   Failing while other people are looking is even worse.  The cringe-worthy flop I experienced recently has brought this topic into sharp focus.  Failure sucks. 

Of course, there are other, less judgmental perspectives.  There are helpful books, discussions, and even the occasional children’s movie celebrating failure.  Sage business leaders say that punishing failure is a sure way to breed a culture of fear and choke off innovation.  And so, many companies are actively trying to make room for success’s ugly cousin, failure.

Do you feel free to fail at work?  In life?  If not, why?  And how might that be holding you back?

Many of us can look back on the big, bold visions of what we wanted to achieve and, while acknowledging the progress we have made, know that we are living far, far short of what we’re capable of.  What’s stopping us?

Well, let’s look at my ‘dog’s breakfast’ of a performance from last week as an illustration.

My regular readers will know that I’m passionate about the intersection between communication skills and emotional intelligence and business success.   I’ve been coaching and facilitating communication, sales and empathy skills for fifteen years now.  This is my realm, so to speak.

So, when I heard that there was a full-day workshop on improving your empathy skills in order to empower others to do the same, I was all over it.   

The day started wonderfully.  As I expected, I was in a room full of passionate educators.  They were from diverse backgrounds – a researcher in the engineering field, a veteran teacher, a young gal working at a non-profit that helps adults with cognitive challenges learn to read, a woman heading an IT consulting firm, a recent emigre from Spain now in charge of logistics for an EI firm, and our fearless leader.  The workshop used 3D puzzles as the vehicle for exploring empathy.

The morning games were fascinating.  Some of us were blindfolded, some not.  The facilitator gave a sighted ‘guide’ an already-constructed figure, and the blindfolded ‘builders’, each an identical set of loose pieces.  The guide’s task was to help the builders replicate the shape while the remaining participants observed.

The goal was to have a rich discussion about the challenges and experiences of each participant. 

After lunch, our facilitator Ryan upped the challenge level. There would be one sighted guide, three blindfolded builders, two observers and a tough, 5-piece 3D puzzle.  I thought, okay I’m ready for a challenge. I volunteered to be the guide. 

We aimed to have a collaborative discussion throughout, and my goal was to have all three builders successfully replicate the puzzle.

And… I did it!  I brought all my focus to how I could clearly describe what they could not see, so they could put the pieces together, step-by-step.  I gave them an overall picture ‘It looks kind of like a rocket ship.’  I was encouraging: ‘Good – you’ve almost got it.  Rotate the gear-like piece to the right.  Excellent!  Oh, that’s a fiddely bit, you’re almost there.  Excellent!  Etc.’

When all three participants had completed the design, Ryan said ‘have a look’.  Everyone took off their blindfolds.  We had done it!  Success.  I felt proud.

But something was wrong.  The energy is the room wasn’t great.  In fact, one of the participants was angry.  Ryan debriefed the experience with the same two questions he’d asked after each game:  What happened?  And How did you feel?

The engineer-researcher said ‘Oh, I could tell exactly who was achieving each stage first, because of how you congratulated us.’  He was laughing when he said this, but still.  The EI logistics guy concurred.

The NGO gal was down-right hostile.  She said ‘I am perfectly fine with process.  You were goal-oriented instead of process-oriented.  I felt rushed.’

My face started to get hot.  I squirmedin my seat.

The observers shared: ‘You were looking down at your game piece a lot of the time.’  (I was.  How else would I be able to figure out how to describe it?)

And… ‘You weren’t collaborative’.  (I thought I had been, because I continually checked in with ‘have you got that?  Okay that looks good, etc.’)

NGO gal: ‘Yeah, you didn’t ask any open questions.  You weren’t collaborative.  I felt detached from the whole experience – it was just about completing the tasks you gave us.’

I was cringing.  I felt attacked.  And really embarrassed.  So much for being good at this.  What I initially thought had been a success was in fact a huge screw-up.  I had felt mildly under pressure to ‘get it right’, and so in fact I had been very task-oriented.  She was right.  I hadn’t asked any open questions.  I’ve been teaching empathy for fifteen years and I completed pooched this.  I felt thoroughly humiliated.

So.  What to do with that embarrassing failure?   My sincere advice after this experience is to hide it.  Hide that failure at all costs.  Defend, obfuscate, counter-attack.  Never admit defeat.

Just kidding.

Why is failure so uncomfortable?

Failure shakes up our self-definition.  Clearly, I thought of myself as someone who knows a lot about empathy and is skilled at helping others develop theirs.   Their collective feedback showed me that I have a lot to learn.  The more attached we are to a certain picture of ourselves, the scarier and more painful it can be to take risks that might disrupt that identity.

Antidote:  Embrace the idea of being a life-long learner as a key part of your self-image.  That way, the processes of experimentation and failure are baked into how you live.  I’ve been leaning heavily on this belief the last few days.  It’s helped.

The implications of failing seem too costly.  What if I fail?  Will I lose my job?  That opportunity?  Their respect?  If I’m to be honest, I had a horrible sleep that night.  I couldn’t stop my brain from taunting me with catastrophic scenarios.   OMG, you were looking forward to collaborating with these people in the future.  Clearly that’s not going to happen.   They’re going to talk, and no one in this field will work with me, etc.  My inner Gremlins are very creative.

Antidote 1:  Reframe the failure as a successWow!  What an awesome failure!  You really dove in with both feet!  I mean, you just got that totally wrong.  I love how you didn’t hold anything back.  You brought you’re A-Game to that failure.  Way to go!  This will create a sense of safety and the boldness and courage you need to get back out there and take another risk.

Antidote 2:  Mine the failure for the goldmine of learning that it is.  Really, this is the big win.  Had I not fallen on my face, the workshop would’ve been a joyful experience with some interesting tips and strategies I could bring into my work.  Instead, it was a truly transformational experience that I will never forget.  The insights I got will inform and enrich my life, my relationships and my work going forward.

What are some projects you’ve shied away from out of fear of failing?  How can you coax your inner adventurer to go for it?  What if the goal wasn’t success at all, but just to live fully?  What if you told yourself you were aiming to have a big, bold, messy experience, whatever it turned out to be?  And that was success?  Now, what are you willing to try?

Embrace your glorious failures!


By Guest Blogger Kira Callahan, President of Conversation Gym
Kira is a Communications Coach, Speaker and Facilitator, NCCA Canada Member/Event Speaker and regular contributor to the HuffPo Canada Business Blog.



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