A Coaching Power Tool Created by Clifton Carmody
(Leadership Coach, UNITED STATES)
And now, let’s talk about, Failure…
Just reading that word “failure” may elicit memories of plans gone wrong in the past. Or memories of hopes and dreams never realized due only to the fear of failing, not even of actually trying and then failing. Maybe that word makes you remember a business venture that never took off; or a relationship that failed; or maybe a career move that did not work out as planned. Maybe you said, “it failed, period.”
But what if that business venture, relationship or career move was not a period. What if you looked at it as a comma? What would happen if you look at that failure as a detour rather than the end of the road? What if you looked at not getting the expected result as nothing more than data for a redirect.
- Definition: “Failure”: (fail·ure) noun - /ˈfālyər/ - the omission of expected results.
- Definition: “Redirect”: (re·di·rect) verb - /rēdəˈrekt/ - to put (something) on course to a new or different place or purpose.
According to the definition above, “failure” is a common part of life. Although, it may be an everyday occurrence in many areas of our life,( from getting the wrong coffee at your favorite coffee shop to getting lost in a new city or (fill in the blank)), often we feel when something does not work out it, is the end of the road. But what would happen if we viewed each time we did not get the expected results as an opportunity to chart a new course?
Remember your dreams and fight for them. You must know what you want from life. There is just one thing that makes your dream become impossible: the fear of failure. Paulo Coelho
Failure as a dead end
Failure is often a debilitating result that affects far more than that which failed, often affecting things that may be seemingly unrelated. Such as a loss of a job that becomes the precursor to a lost marriage or vice versa. A failure of one business being the reason someone does not start another. A couple of rejection letters to a much-wanted proposal that keeps the proposal in safely in the drawer, where it cannot embarrass the owner anymore.
Throughout my time of coaching, I have found that failure and the fear of failure have become the blocks to so many clients’ aspirations. Sometimes the client’s “failure” could appear to be laughably insignificant (compared to the potential payoff of their aspirations) to the coach, although the coach’s position is not one to note this. Nor, do we as coaches always know the underlying beliefs that are causing what seems to be undue angst. As Martin Meadows writes in Failure to Success,
… failure sucks. It’s disrespectful to trivialize anyone’s failure by saying that they can simply ‘snap out of it.’ Right after a big failure, the last thing you want is somebody downplaying its significance in your life.
Often times its the fear of failure that keeps us stuck. The human brain is hardwired to protect us. Evolution has perfected the state of killing off the too-adventurous genes from the gene pool. The amygdala is part of the brain that creates fear, ostensibly, to protect us. We can practically hear it screaming at us when we are getting ready to walk across a busy street or getting ready to share our thoughts with the loud drunk guy at the next table… “Don’t do it! Danger!” And this is also the place where the fear of exploring something new originates from in our brain. We want to escape the corporate world and embark as a consultant, but the amygdala is our inner nervous parent saying to us “don’t do it! You will go hungry! People will laugh at you if you fail! You will live on the street! You might hate your job, but we are safe!”
So here we are as coaches, trying to move a client forward, with the ghost-of-failure-past interfering, or the worry of a future failure that is an effective roadblock to any forward movement. Failure or fear of failure has effectively shut done any future possibilities from the clients’ perspective. But does failure have to be a dead-end?
The most important decision we make is whether we believe we live in a friendly or hostile universe. Albert Einstein
Failure is a detour sign
Looking at failure as a detour sign, or a redirection is not a pollyanna’s behavior. Bring to mind an explorer who gets lost and has to backtrack to find his way. Or Thomas Edison and his famous quote on his work to invent a viable lightbulb,
I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.
Jim Carrey got booed off stage during a comedy routine early in his career, using it as a detour sign, or as data to analyze, he changed his routine and became a wildly famous comedian.
During one of my own sessions being coached, the coach noted I had brought up the word failure many times. It was clearly observable that I had an issue with failure. Having both a shame of it in the past and a fear of it in the future.
Upon post-session reflection, I took the approach and meditated upon the idea that there were no failures, only redirections in my life. I played back the “failures” in my life, with the eye of knowing how everything turned out. The “failure” of my first marriage made room for meeting and marrying the love of my life. The “failure” of one career position on the east coast was the catalyst to find a significantly better position on the west coast near my daughter. The “failure” I had in hurting myself and not making the USA Rugby team, allowed me to take a position that turned into a career I loved. The “failure” of the embarrassment by slamming my hand down one night on the dinner table in anger forced me to seek out meditation instruction the next day, which was the path for me to meet and work for the Dalai Lama and his family.
Sometimes people identify with the failure to such an extent that they consider themselves a “failure”. It’s true that we may not want to repeat our failures. I would be embarrassed beyond words if I was to act out in anger as I did nearly 30 years ago, but I do not need to hold onto a story of being a failure. Results can be disappointing, but people are not failures. Besides, in my case, can an event that led to a meeting and working for one of the most special people on earth be considered a failure?
For those that have faith in a Higher Power, or Divine Intelligence, failure could be nothing more than the redirection of one’s life according to the plan of Spirit. When coaching or thinking about failure from this perspective, we can begin to see possibilities where before we saw only endings.
Remember that failing is not painless, whether a roadblock or redirect, it is at least inconvenient, if not wholly life-changing and difficult. We do not want to pretend that all is good no matter what happens. But if we look at the undesired outcome as data for redirecting our energies, we can then see possibilities where before we only saw endings. We will see commas, where we only saw periods. We can see beginnings where we thought there were only endings.
Applying to problem-solving and coaching
When we are facing a challenge around failure, we can apply a thinking exercise around the question or concern by asking what is trying to come out of this situation?
The oftentimes normal way we think about failure is by examining what has happened that did not go correctly. While this is a valid way of problem-solving, it is often thought of as being the only way. Another way of looking at the situation could be to ask, “what is opening up here, what wants to happen?”
As we ponder past failures as reasons to abort our dreams, we can spend time ruminating on what we did not get from the failed situation. Conversely, we can use the opportunity to reflect on what was allowed to happen that was of benefit from the “failure”. I failed by slamming my hand on the table, but through that failure, I was redirected to learning better ways of expressing myself that were absolutely necessary to my development as an adult. I failed in acting like an adult at that time, but I met the Dalai Lama who gave me advice that changed my life for the better!
This line of examining can then be used to explore what could happen in the future. So often we think of taking on a challenge like starting a new business, while diligently and responsibly exploring all that could go wrong. This is what we do as mature aspiring business successes. But by balancing what could go right (by trying and failing), with what could go wrong, we may be able to better make a value decision. Using the example of a corporate professional who is thinking about leaving the company (she does not like) to start consulting, maybe she could think that if her consulting business does not work out, maybe she would end up finding a dream job.
This method of examining past failures as opportunities can lessen the negative feelings and fear arising from taking forward action similar to past failures. If we can see the beauty in the past failures, we can then see that the failure was nothing more than a cosmic redirect.
- What would happen if that “failure” was not the end of the story, and it was only a detour? Where would the redirect take you?
- What have been some examples of “failures” in your past that can be seen today, through the lens of time, to be gifts of a redirect? How can the results and realization of that situation be compared to the challenge of a redirect now?
- What can you do to look at unexpected results as a beneficial outcome?
- Read the often-told story below (told here by David Allen) of who knows what is good and what is bad and then come up with your own story following this pattern based on your own real-life experiences:
There were a farmer and one day his horse runs away, his neighbor comes over and says, to commiserate, “I’m so sorry about your horse.” And the farmer says “Who Knows What’s Good or Bad?” The neighbor is confused because this is clearly terrible. The horse is the most valuable thing he owns. But the horse comes back the next day and he brings with him 12 feral horses. The neighbor comes back over to celebrate, “Congratulations on your great fortune!” And the farmer replies again: “Who Knows What’s Good or Bad?” And the next day the farmer’s son is taming one of the wild horses and he’s thrown and breaks his leg. The neighbor comes back over, “I’m so sorry about your son.” The farmer repeats: “Who Knows What’s Good or Bad?” Sure enough, the next day the army comes through their village and is conscripting able-bodied young men to go and fight in a war, but the son is spared because of his broken leg.
- Definitions in this paper used this website: https://www.lexico.com
- Meadows, M. (2017). From failure to success : everyday habits and exercises to build mental resilience and turn failures into successes. Chicago, Illinois: Meadows Publishing.
- Cardone, G. (2011). The 10X rule : the only difference between success and failure. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
- Gary John Bishop (2017). Unfu*k yourself : get out of your head and into your life. New York, NY: HarperOne.
- Harvard Business Review. (2018). How Fear Helps (and Hurts) Entrepreneurs. [online] Available at: https://hbr.org/2018/04/how-fear-helps-and-hurts-entrepreneurs [Accessed 27 Oct. 2019].
- Öhman, A. (2005). The role of the amygdala in human fear: automatic detection of threat. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 30(10), pp.953–958.
- Allan, D. (2015). Who Knows What’s Good or Bad? [online] Medium. Available at: https://medium.com/@davidgallan/who-knows-what-s-good-or-bad-my-tedx-talk-transcript-8404344779ce [Accessed 28 Oct. 2019].