Research Paper By Karen Somers
(Development Coach, UNITED STATES)
How To Stretch Your Brain and Release Your Genius
Nobody likes to fail. But women take failure particularly hard—studies have shown that women are so averse to failure that they don’t apply for jobs unless they feel 100 percent qualified. This hesitancy is understandable: When they do fail, women are judged more harshly than their male counterparts. Men, on the other hand, throw veritable failure parties; they’re more likely to embrace “what doesn’t kill you …” and plow ahead. (Quarterly Journal of Economics 2007)
The fear of failure for women poses an interesting challenge for a gender that is still struggling for equity. I have had my fair share of terrors around new endeavors, skill sets, and life choices. Fear of failure is such a threat that women often become frozen, we seek an excuse to avoid bumping up against it and effectively thwart our success. We become our own best enemy in the fight for equal pay, respect, and advancement.
I work in a predominantly male-dominant business – entertainment – running my own production company as a director, producer, camera operator, and photographer. I have noticed over the years how the genders operate differently on the job and in the process of hiring.
When I hire the guys to work for my crews, they always embrace opportunities regardless of whether they are experts or not. For better or worse, they show up and figure it out. Failure is not a beast that holds them back from throwing themselves into the job.
I find it far more challenging to hire women. The females in my world feel the need to be experts, they want to know that they won’t fail before they take the gig. This fear of failure causes many women in the arts to say no to avoid the horror of not hitting the mark, something that they perceive they will never recover from. The philosophy that women are consciously (or unconsciously) not embracing, is that failure is simply a tool. It is a necessary step in the pursuit of excellence and accomplishment. Climbing the ladder will entail a few falls along the way. The men on my teams seem to intuitively understand that In the falling down, we are building the resilience to pick ourselves up, again and again, to climb, to achieve the dreams we hold in our hearts and minds. Women are willing to let go of opportunity in many instances as the chance of failure is too much for them to bear.
In a now-famous 2007 study, economics professors Muriel Niederle at Stanford and LiseVesterlund at the University of Pittsburg had groups of two men and two women perform simple addition problems. In the first round, participants were paid a flat 50 cents per correct answer; in the second round, they competed for tournament-style, so that the highest scorer in the group would be awarded $2 per correct question, while the other participants would win nothing. Then, the participants were told they’d be able to choose the compensation scheme. Almost three-quarters of the men chose the tournament format, while only 35 percent of the women did so, even though the genders performed at about the same level in both schemes. (Economic Quarterly Journal 2007)
I have gone through similar experiences in my own life and career. I have periodically said no when I should have said yes. I should have taken the leap of faith that I would succeed. I suspect that I’ve taken longer to get to where I am now because of my reluctance from time to time, to embrace the stretch, the discomfort of fear, and to potentially fail. It is through the guidance of many accomplished men and women in my life that I have been encouraged to say yes to the unknown, embrace the discomfort of possible failure, and knowing that I may do a full face plant into failure.
As a result, I have failed many times in the process of learning my craft, however, as I’ve suffered the excruciating feelings of falling, the act of getting back up and succeeding has given me hard-won confidence to try bigger and better things. Failure has been the necessary ingredient to my success over time. So how can women get better at embracing this wholly uncomfortable state so we are there to accept the ribbons and trophies? Perhaps this is an issue of self-perception that can be resolved.
In Fiona Gallacher’s “Sex Role Orientation and Fear,” we learn that women reported significantly higher fear scores than men. Even though their responses did not indicate that females experienced greater levels of physiological disturbance. They said they were more afraid than their male counterparts, believed it was true, but acted at least as courageously as the men. The passivity encouraged in girls by our culture feeds directly into the early development of habits of fear, according to a study titled “The Etiology of Fear,” which reports Masserman’s findings that “A feeling of helplessness intensifies fear while having something to do reduces it.”
After all the highs and lows I’ve struggled with, I know that there is a significant payoff of success, satisfaction, and happiness with the willingness to embrace our fear of failure. I want women to succeed, to stay the course in their lives, to experience the same success and joy that is possible. I want us all to find the courage to say yes to anything knowing that they cannot be frozen in fear because they have prepared, amped up their expertise, and are willing to make a few mistakes along the way. They can stretch and over time, finding their special genius along the path of the unknown. I believe that this mastery will bring the social justice women have been seeking for generations.
Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck says in her book Mindset that women who struggle with failure are falling prey to “fixed mindsets”: A student with a fixed mindset might look at a poor grade as a criticism of her core self, rather than a reflection of her particular effort or skills. Those with “growth mindsets,” Dweck writes, can accept failure more readily, since they view their traits as constantly under development. A poor grade doesn’t preclude a better grade in the future. (see The New Psychology of Success)
In reality, at the core of my fascination with how women deal with the fear of failure is courage. I desire to build courage and know that I am shoulder to shoulder with the other women I work within our pursuit of excellence. So how do we build up our courage to pursue our greatest dreams instead of holding ourselves back because fear is the beast we just can’t get beyond? How do we adapt?
Achieving resilience in the face of failure and perseverance in the face of adversity is a central part of this success and part of our evolution. Perhaps reframing failure as a key strategy to success is something we need to absorb into our gender consciousness. Women are already excelling in everything from sports to education and proliferating in the world of work. The grit and perseverance of the successful men and women that have come before us, the “never say die” persistence seems to be the magic bullet.
Using Failure As An Indestructible Tool For Success
Humans who are trying to accomplish something can learn a lesson here from their sisters the dandelions. Humans are a lot like dandelions. We try all kinds of things. For instance, if you are a kid trying out for a part in a play, you may get rejected the first year (as a dandelion may get weed-wacker in Season 1). But the dandelion, due to its biological design, keeps trying. It tries a new area of the yard – its pods and the wind may bring it a mile away. It “gives it another go.” And that may work. Does this strategy work for you? You didn’t get this particular part in this particular play. Should you just go belly-up, then? Well, a dandelion wouldn’t do that! The dandelion may fail five more times before it finally yields a plant that has just the right conditions to facilitate reproductive success.
Perfectionism has little place in production and optimization. Grit, effort, and persistence trump perfectionism in cultivating success in many areas – in dandelion reproduction and human production. (Psychology Today 2014)
Gaming Failure – Beating the House
I have found, over time, that the more opportunities I accept, no matter the terror that I might be experiencing internally, that I eventually mastered the element I was frightened by in the first place. Working in the arts is a high wire act for most people, the odds of failure are pretty good as one practice their craft. The penalties for arts professionals can be painful as these jobs are often in a wider public consumption space and as a result, there are more voices offering criticism instead of constructive feedback. For many women, this can feel like walking into a buzz saw and they feel like they are holding their guts in their hands just trying to survive. After a while, with enough practice, the buzz saw can reduce in size and effect. We learn, grow, and stitch ourselves back up until finally, we realize that we aren’t going to die.
In a recent article by Clair Groden, she suggests that perhaps that looming fear of failure is a factor explaining the growing body of scientific evidence that women are less likely to engage in competitive or difficult tasks than men when given the option to opt-out. Rather than eagerly searching for opportunities to challenge themselves, women tend to be anchored in their comfort zones, in large part, Ms. Groden suggests, because they don’t believe they can succeed. It’s a self-enforcing mechanism: when women opt out of the competition even before it begins, men end up dominating the leaderboards.
Perhaps it is time to step up and surround ourselves with fellow players (male and female) willing to support our efforts in beating the odds. Perhaps it is time to take our place in the hallowed halls of winners that can keep stepping up to the plate and take an endless number of swings until a homerun is hit. Then we’ll step up and do it all over again improving our odds, by stretching our beliefs, releasing our inner genius, and thereby realizing our dreams.
Quarterly Journal of Economics 2007
Muriel Niederle and LiseVesterlund
Do Women Shy Away From Competition? Do Men Compete Too Much?
Mindset – The New Psychology of Success
How We Can Learn To Fulfill Our Potential
Carol S. Sweck, Ph.D.
Ballentine Books/New York 2006
The Aetiology of Fear
Volume 27, Issue 2, October 1988
Glen Gener, PhD
Sept. 05, 2014
June 6, 2016