Ok peeps, I have a proposition, it’s to fail— online, in real time, as it happens, vulnerably. Why? Because in all the failure talks I hear, watch, or deliver, it’s always retrospective, never prospective.
On the weekend Mike and I were listening to Alex Osterwalder, the co-author and founder of Business Model Generation, speak at the Business Innovation Factor talks about failure. He gave a lovely talk entitled “Why I want my kids to fail” and, like many other failure proponents, he describe the rationale for why failure is so important. He talked about how many of us undervalue it in pursuit of success, which is unfortunate because failure provides the actual tools for learning and for greater success. Acknolwedging how important failures are for success, he gave a few examples of his own failures and how pivotal they were to his eventual success. He said he felt vulnerable sharing them.
It reminded me of my own talks on the subject, where I make the argument that we (and our brains) are wired to fail, and, more important, we are wired to learn from failures and all related phenomena including mistakes and errors. In each of my talks on failure, I try to highlight my own particular failures. I ask them to look at their failures (on a piece of paper where they have privately written them down) and to feel the body sensations associated with the failure(s). As we examine our failures, we are liable to feel many sensations, most of which are uncomfortable, which is the reason many of us fear failure. We feel raw, exposed, and vulnerable as we expose a part of ourselves that we so often desperately trying to conceal.
As I present, I feel that too as I present my own failures. I try to chose one that still makes me feel raw. Last week I shared one about my poor university teaching evaluations last year. As I speak, it’s there, staring back at me and all the people in the audience. Standing there, I feel like everyone is judging me. Or at least enough of them are. For the 40 minutes I linger in that excruciating pain, trying to prove a point: this sucks!
Feeling a failure (or like a failure) is so incredibly uncomfortable. It hurts. We discuss all the symptoms associated with it: heart racing, sweaty, tense, head hurts, shoulders are heavy, pit in our stomach, throat is tight… the list goes on. It mimics many of the physical feelings associated with the fight or flight (or freeze) response. I continue to feel uncomfortable myself as my failure continues to loom behind me.
But, because I have practiced this much, I know that the uncomfortability will eventually run it’s course and I will emerge on the other side more adaptable as a result. As uncomfortable as that was, I survived. The sensations, the fear, the uncomfortability, or however we label the aversive experiences associated with failure, eventually DO run their course. That is important to know.
Eventually, I share my reframe, what I learned from my failure, what I did with that feedback, and how I changed and improved as a result. But I do so with the aim of being vulnerable as I do it.
While listening to failure talk by Alex, Mike and I both noted that it’s easier to talk about your failures when you are a success. It’s also much different to hear about someone else’s failures when they are not personal for you. We both acknowledged that no one is going to go up on stage and say “Hey, I failed. PERIOD. I’m a failure, a loser, and I have nothing to show for it. Now listen to me because I am an example of how failure is important.” Fair enough.
But I can’t help but wonder about the potential value of sharing failures, as they happen. What if someone stood up there and said “hey, I’m about to embark on a journey and I might fail, come watch me fail and (hopefully) learn from it.” Doing THAT would be WAY more uncomfortable than my 40-minute pause until I get to tell everyone “hey, guess what?! I’m not really a failure. I learned lots and I succeeded in other ways. You can stop judging me now. I am not actually a loser!” There, I know it’s coming. I am still in control… as long as everyone stays in the audience. But what if I didn’t have that control?
I happen to be in the business of vulnerability. In many walks of my life, I put myself into uncomfortable situations where I disclose and expose myself, publicly and uncomfortably. It started with my writing (personal stuff that I posted online) and evolved into an on-stage production known as Body Monologues. It seeped into my teaching as a storytelling tool and a way to inspire relatability. It comes up with clients who I’m coach. It’s one of the main elements of a book I am writing right now, one that I might fail at.
So here is my proposition: I will share with you my journey in writing my book. It’s a journey toward a potential failure… or a potential success. I don’t actually know so I don’t have the luxury of knowing when my 40 minutes are up and I can say “see, I’m worthy again!”. I will be forced to endure the uncomfortability of my endeavour publicly. I have no publisher. I have no agent. I have no pre-orders. I plan to invest money, time, and my ego in this thing. I don’t even know who would buy my book other than people in my courses who are forced to. This project could be a complete failure. But I want to share it.
I want to document and publicize my failures (and any learning and success that may happen too) as it happens, not retrospectively, but as I prepare to finish, publish, and launch my book. The purpose of this failure project is to push my own boundaries of uncomfortability and to be more vulnerable in the exposures of my failures, while also supporting a mission to embrace failures as a natural and necessary part of life and success.
Please follow if you want but ask one thing: that no one offers any consolation during my darkest hours. I want to sit and process and reflect along this journey just the same as I normally would. I want to share it as uncensored as I can without worry of having to protect others. What do I mean by that? Well, in addition to feeling our own failures strongly, sometimes other people’s failures trigger our sense of failure. I remember that experience very distinctly when I first heard Brian Goldman, MD and host of White Coat, Black Art, speak about his failures in the emergency room. It made me VERY uncomfortable to hear about his mistakes. Mistakes that caused severe consequences. I cringed almost stopped listening. His failures triggered my own fear of failure and it made me feel very vulnerable.
So here goes. As I go to post this I feel like I did my first time. Incredibly scared. I am worried people will think I am crazy for doing this. Or worse, that they won’t care at all. But I can endure 40 minutes. I know that much. And that’s enough to push me to post.
Mandy Wintink - Pop-Up Neuroscience Class (CANCommunity YouTube Channel) on Failure
Alex Osterwalder- #BIF10 (Business Innovation Factory) Talk “Why I Want My Kids To Fail”
Brian Goldman - #TEDxToronto Talk. “Doctors Make Mistakes. Can We Talk About That?”