It’s Time to Talk About the F Word… Not that F word. We need to Talk About Failure

I’ve been a football fan for almost my entire life. I’m an Aston Villa fan so I know quite a lot about loss, quite a lot about hope, followed by broken dreams. So Sunday’s England game is not my first road show. I have also faced a fair number of road blocks on the road to success. Most people look at my career path and see success and progress. I look at it and see all the people who told me I wasn’t good enough, that I couldn’t make it, and that I didn’t have what it takes. I see the fire and determination that built up in me to show them they were wrong. It’s one of the reasons I’m so passionate about lifting others up. I’m no stranger to failure, but my experiences have taught me to believe that failure is actually critical to success. We come back from it stronger. We also (if we take the time) come back wiser, having learnt the lessons it offers us.

My bad relationship with failure started early

When I was at secondary school I took a history exam, I got 96%, my father jokingly asked what happened to the other 4%. I took it to heart and was crushed by my ‘failure’.

No member of my family has ever failed an exam, not a driving test, not an academic test, nothing. It was just not done or considered a possibility.

So imagine my horror when I became sick whilst doing my GCSE’s. I went from planning to sit 11 GCSE’s to only being able to go to school for an hour a day and being allowed to sit only Maths, Duel Science and English. I was well enough in the build up to revise for a single weekend. I had been told that all plans to attend university needed to be revised and that I would be lucky to attend Sixth Form. I was a failure. People were planning for my complete academic crash and burn. This was super hard for the girl who had never considered anything else but an academic future.

So I took a beat, or, in reality, quite a few, and decided screw it. I would not be defined by being ill, I would not be defined by being a failure. I got my 5 GCSE’s and found a Sixth Form that would take me. The first year of Sixth Form I still couldn’t attend normally. I did 2 A-levels, Biology and Drama. I also did General Studies, mostly as I didn’t need to turn up for class. My Drama classes were end of day, so I could crash out. It was only the Biology that was the stretch. In my second year I realised I needed a third subject to go to uni. I found a Psychology teacher who allowed me to attend classes at evening school as well as during the day. I covered the minimum amount of topics to be able to pass the exam. I crossed my fingers and hoped that I would overcome. I got my 4 A-levels, I came second in my year and I got into Uni. I took a year off in between as I still was not well so that I could maximise my chances. Needless to say this journey left me a fair number of hang ups about not only failing, but not being able to keep up and whether I was ever going to be good enough again to be accepted by my peers.

My rocky journey to learning to, if not love, then at least to appreciate failure

Since our rocky start, failure and I have gradually come to an uneasy dĂ©tente. I try to avoid it at all costs and it reminds me that it is an ever-present part of life. Rather like that relative/friend who always turns up at parties, even if they haven’t actually been invited. In recent years, we’ve spent an increasing amount of time in each other’s company and, although it surprises no one more than I, I actually have some good things to say about about the F word thatcan make you better in the long run.

Sometimes you need to feel the fear

Let’s start with the easier things to like. I often talk to my students and mentees about the benefits of feeling the fear. Fear of failure can be overwhelming, leading to paralysis. However, if you can manage the fear it can be used to motivate and focus the mind. This is especially true with high-stakes assessments, such as exams or dissertations. There are different ways that can be used in order to harness the fear of failure to your advantage: from being prepared far enough ahead that the fear is spread over time, to working with peers to support bench marking and fear control. Different strokes for different folks. The main thing is to not hide from it, but acknowledge it and manage it to your advantage.Failure, however, comes in all shapes and forms, not just as high-stakes encounters. It happens in leadership conversations, data analysis and day to day life. When the inevitable happens, and it is inevitable, you need a plan for how to address it. Below are some of my tips about how I face, process, and learn from failure.

Separating the failure from the person

I often shock people when I say I fail all the time, but it’s true. I fail to have conversations in the way I want, I fail to always be there for my team in the way I want to and I most certainly fail to keep on top of my workload. That’s before I even begin to talk about failing to have any work life balance or to give my husband the attention he deserves.

One of the things that has really helped me to manage some of the guilt and fear linked with these failures is understanding that most of them are linked to roles that I play. That doesn’t make them any less significant, but it does enable me to box them and learn from them without them creeping into everything I do and impacting on how I feel about myself as a person. Dr Cloutman-Green often needs to do better and learn from failure in terms of how that outbreak phone call went. That doesn’t mean that Dream is a failure at all she does. It’s about placing sufficient boundaries on the failure to give me distance to permit reflection and learning.

Allowing time to grieve and emotionally process

Now, you may all be better people than I and leap straight into the ‘learning’ post-failure. I’m afraid I don’t have that much mental strength. I need ‘wallow time’. Time to process the emotions linked to what’s happened, so I can move forward and reach a point where I have the cognitive space to reflect. Reflection for me needs to have the emotional response removed. I don’t believe in bottling up my emotions for a later melt down so I allow myself a grieving period. This is normally 48 hours-(it can be a week if it’s something big) where I allow myself guilt-free to feel. To express (in an appropriate way) my frustration/anger/disappointment targeted at the failure. This helps me understand the level to which the activity linked to the failure mattered to me. Is it worth repeating, do I care enough to end up potentially back in this place? I usually do this in the company of my two coping mechanisms: cake and gin. They’ve been my companions in failure for over 10 years, so they are experts in handling me and getting me back to a balanced viewpoint.

Devoting time to reflection to support learning once the grieving us done

So we’ve acknowledge that the failure sucks. We’ve learnt that we care enough about whatever it was linked to that we are prepared to put on the Big Girl Pants and get back into the foray. Now is the time to sit down and learn the lessons in order to reduce our chance of ending up back with cake and gin.

If the failure is linked to things like paper or grant failure, now is the time to open that dreaded feedback and spend some time with it now your emotions are under control. Which parts of it are the things you secretly knew were true? Which parts, despite feeling harsh, can be used to make what you’ve done better for the second time around? If it’s for an exam, which parts didn’t go well? How will your planning and preparation address these next time? If it’s that you sucked when having that conversation or argument, then now is the time to reflect on why and be prepared to dive back in there and try it again. Hopefully the next time will be better.

It’s rarely as bad as it feels in the moment

Some of the time I take when reflecting and learning lessons is to think: if this had happened to my best friend, what would I say to her? We are often our own worst critics. As well as the learning, and sometimes to help with this, thinking of how you would handle this as a friend means that you can review it from a different viewpoint. This can not only help your learning but also put it in a context that may enable you to be just a little kinder to yourself.

Failure is context specific, so find the right people to support your thinking

If you can’t manage distancing during reflection, this is the time to call on your champions in order to get them to help you. My husband, who is a great fan of telling me that experiencing a little failure would be good for me, fulfils this for me. I will arrive home in floods of tears because I haven’t met X deadline. He will ask “did anyone die?” No. “Did anyone get fired?” No. “Was anyone hurt in anyway?” No. “Then either let it go or put it in late, there will always be another X.”

Sometimes we all get so bogged in the weeds of what we should be doing that we find it difficult to put our failures in the context that they deserve. Can you try again? Almost always. So why are you still here? Learn the lessons and go try again. Good luck with that. If you fail I’ll be here with my good friends gin and cake to help you recover, reflect and learn.

All opinions on this blog are my own

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