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11 Nov 15

You Failed. So What?

Wouldn’t it be lovely if we never failed?

We had an idea, we acted upon it, and all worked out perfectly.

As we’re all too aware, life doesn’t work that way and the older we get, the more failures we accumulate.

But while it might factually be true that we failed to achieve our desired outcome, the story we tell about that failure is what affects our emotions and our ability to be in action and move forward.

Just a few of my many failures

When I was a teenager, I attended a sign language course. I thought it’d be useful – and fun – to learn how to communicate in a different way. I failed the exam at the end of the course.

I applied to be Head Girl at my school and didn’t get voted in. (I re-applied to be Deputy Head Girl and didn’t get voted in for that either.)

In my early twenties, I told my friend I fancied him and he said he didn’t feel the same.

I wrote a novel and had the manuscript rejected by a dozen publishers.

After training as a co-active coach, I managed to get a meeting with a big private school in Cambridge with the intention of bringing coaching to all their students. They didn’t hire me in.

I spent years (and money) exploring natural vision improvement, yet I still wear glasses and contact lenses.

I failed to speak kindly to my wife during a recent conversation.

These are the facts. I failed at these things, and many many more.

But what does that mean?

Failing is…

There’s the literal definition of failing – not meeting a particular result or expectation – and then there’s the interpretation we give it.

One of the most significant learnings from my coach training back in 2005 was that our experience of a situation depends on the perspective we take, and what’s so empowering is that we get to question whether a perspective is serving us, and then we get to choose our perspective.

An event or set of circumstances exists – but we hold a position in relation to that situation. Often, we’re not aware that we hold a position and that our position can be challenged.

It’s as if we’re at the theatre and we’re sitting in one particular seat and we’ve been sitting there so long that we believe it’s The Seat. It’s not a particularly comfortable seat, but we tell ourselves this is just the seat that we have to sit in, and we settle.

We don’t realise that we’re only experiencing one point of view on failing – and that if we were to look around, we’d see that many other seats are empty and we could move around until we find the seat that offers us the best, most enjoyable view.

How will you complete the sentence?

I used to run a workshop called Fail Is Not A Four Letter Word and I created a simple yet powerful practical exercise for us all to re-approach our failures.

Participants would start by identifying their default perspective on their failings; they came up with stories like:

“Failing is… evidence I’m no good.”

“Failing is… embarrassing.”

“Failing is… the end of the road.”

What happens when we believe this about our failures?

We play small. We stop trying. We don’t take risks in case we fail again.

And then because life is life, we fail anyway and we beat ourselves up. We vow to avoid that route next time. Life becomes limited, there are less opportunities available to us.

If you’re not comfortable, move seat

Perspectives on failingIn my workshop, the central activity involved generating other perspectives on failing and then trying them on.

We came up with:

“Failing is… a sign I’m human.”

“Failing is… feedback.”

“Failing is… evidence that I’m taking risks.”

and many more. The possibilities would explode once the realisation hit that perspective is changeable.

We would move around our metaphorical theatre, searching for a perspective which felt true and that would be empowering enough to fuel bold action.

Time for a new seat?

Once you find a perspective that is true and empowering, you can choose it.

You get to determine what failing means to you so that it can exist as an integrated part of your human experience, rather than a block to pursuing the life you want.

Over to you

Make a list of times you’ve failed. Choose either your most recent failure, or the past failure with the greatest sting, and note the story you’ve been telling about it. Failing here means – what?

Now, “try on” some other perspectives, like the ones mentioned above. For each, ask yourself: could this be just as true as your original perspective? Is it more empowering? How would you live differently if you genuinely saw failing this way?

Leave a comment below, let us know what you notice.


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© Corrina Gordon-Barnes

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  1. Lesley Pyne

    Perfect timing for me Corrina, thanks.
    When I was training in NLP we learned the phrase ‘there’s no failure only feedback’ and whilst my head knows this, it still hurts.
    I’ve not succeeded many times & most recently no-one bought a product I marketed & had worked really hard to produce. You’re right about perspective; one of the first things a friend asked was ‘what was my biggest learning?’ which is a great frame through which to view any ‘failure.’
    And of course changing the perspective and the story we tell ourselves to a more positive one helps us enormously. For me these Elizabeth Gilbert’s book ‘Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear’ has changed how I view my creativity and Brené Brown’s ‘Rising Strong’ guides us back up when we do fail.
    Because as Brené says, if we are brave enough, often enough, we will fail. And having your own business is all about being brave and putting our creativity out in the world.
    Lesley Pyne´s last blog post ..What is the Female Assumption?

    1. Corrina

      Lesley – I thought of you this weekend as I went to the Daring Way workshop, which is Brené Brown’s creation (led by the brilliant Roxanne Hobbs).

      I’m reminded that it’s important to notice the pain and be self-compassionate with how it feels in the default failure perspective first before jumping to “failure is brilliant!” As you say, our heads can know it’d be easier to move perspective but in the moment we’re still in the default.

      Similarly, with The Work of Byron Katie, we look at “how do you react WITH the thought?” and honour that, before moving to “who would yo be WITHOUT the thought?”

  2. Kim Mason

    Thoughtful post Corinna, thank you.

    If I hadn’t failed at lots of things along the way in my working life, I can definitely say I wouldn’t have learnt enough about business development to help others with it now. I’m also far better at spotting mistakes others may be making because I’ve made them myself – giving me better empathy with and understanding of my clients.

    I am far better at what I do because I got stuff wrong – and when you get it wrong your ability to learn is so much greater, so failure can turn into success. Though sometimes it can take a rather long while to realise that!

    Kim Mason´s last blog post ..Comment on Attract new clients by giving things away by Kim Mason

    1. Corrina

      You’re so welcome, Kim – thanks for sharing this perspective, that our failure enables us to be more compassionately and empathetically of service to others.

  3. Kelly

    Failure is … me not being my best. (My thought: I should be my best every. single. time.)

    Changing seats.

    Failure is … me being my best in that moment. (My thought: I’m human. I make mistakes. I’m working with what I have, right now, in this moment. Self-Compassion is an option. Learning from failure is a choice, and I almost always choose that.)

    Failure really is a wonderful companion in life. Although she is uncomfortable to be around sometimes. 😉

    1. Corrina

      Kelly – I took a deep breath and sighed when I read your new seat perspective. So kind, supportive, self-compassionate. Thank you.

  4. Karen J

    I wonder if there’s another word to use for “Failure” that doesn’t carry all that baggage?
    I’m reminded of a friend’s sig line: “Fall seven times, get up eight”.

    I also want to share a brand new book (I only just heard about it on the radio this evening) – Shonda Rhimes’ ‘Year of Yes’ sounds like such a wonderful journey from “You never say Yes to anything” (been there, currently climbing out, myself) to “dancing it out, standing in the sun and being your own person” that I just ordered it!
    Karen J´s last blog post ..Teeny, Tiny, Little-Bitty Baby Steps

  5. Nela

    I wrote about the meaning of failure about a year ago, since it’s something that held me back for a long time. For me, fear of failure was actually a cover story for the fear of shame.
    Public humiliation.
    People gloating and saying “I told you so”.

    After I finally allowed myself to fail big time and lived to tell the story, my outlook on failure has changed.

    For me, not making my former salary in my own business meant failure. Having long stretches of no income meant failure. Sliding down into a pit of despair and depression meant failure. Failure, after failure, after failure.

    After a while, I kind of developed immunity to failure. When I got a notice that I have to pay back my government grant, I shrugged my shoulders and thought “It’s OK, I’ll manage.”
    Basically, things stopped being such a big deal.

    It was that experience that helped me shift my focus on failure. I would love to have had someone explain this to me beforehand, but hey, sometimes we just have to hit our head repeatedly and learn by ourselves 🙂
    Nela´s last blog post ..Why I hate personal development blogs

  6. Gail Corbett-Smith

    This great post reminds me of a job I was in some years ago when a rather stuffy and traditional boss told me I had ‘failed’ with regard to a task I had been assigned to do. At the time it really cut me to the core and I suppose I never really got over his harsh attitude. Now, after lots of other failures and experiences, I can shrug that particular event off, and I have gradually learned how to look at failures and disappointments from a different perspective (changing seats!), although that is not to say they don’t hurt.

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