“If you were sure you would succeed, what would you do in your life?” is a question that almost always provokes a very clear and meaningful answer from coaching clients who say they feel stuck and they aren’t sure what they want.
This no longer surprises me. Somehow, taking the possibility of failure out of the equation frees us to dream and to dream big. It happens time and time again, because in short, most of us are afraid to fail. It is astonishing how a four-letter word can wield so much power over our lives.
Perhaps it is a stigma that we start learning in grade school that comes with the fear of failing to pass a subject or a test. These early encounters teach us the habit of imprisoning ourselves with terror and shame should we be called out for failing. I prefer to frame the word according to actor Gary Bussey’s definition: “You know what 'FAILING' stands for? It stands for 'Finding An Important Lesson, Inviting Needed Growth.”
When I think about what it means to fail, I think Bussey is right. Isn’t trying and failing and then trying again how we learn our most basic and meaningful lessons, like walking, talking and riding a bike?
Certainly, when we are learning a new sport and we make mistakes, we don’t consider ourselves to be failures. We expect that we will keep working and honing our skills – or we may decide that we don’t have any skill in a particular sport or a subject and we will try something else. Its’ all a learning process that we readily accept – and yet, when the stakes get higher, like when we are pursuing a lifelong dream, so often the dread and anxiety of failure keeps us from moving forward.
So when we conceive of the word “failure” as a shameful label it seems to assume that we only get a limited number of tries at something or that there is only one acceptable solution. It gives us no credit for learning and for gaining valuable experience over time.
To that end, can we reframe how we use the word “fail”? What would it be like to strike the word from our vocabulary? Imagine if our report cards could say, “incomplete knowledge “when we don’t pass a subject or a test. Or, maybe they could say, “more progress required for completion. “
For me that approach feels more motivating. Suddenly, “I’m no good at math,” becomes – “Maybe I can go back and explore that subject in a different way.” The language shift offers us an invitation to continue to pursue, rather than shaming us into hiding and hopelessness.
And I also realize that you may be one of those folks who openly embrace failure. That is awesome! Perhaps you can be a role model for the rest of us. According to Inventor Thomas Edison, “Many of life's failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”
My hope is that you won’t be one of the people that Edison is talking about. Keep the faith. Giving-up is how we fail.