In 2003, I was sent to the Middle East as an Assistant Team Chief on a Special Operations team. I found myself living on an oil refinery in the sweltering desert just outside Mosul, Iraq.
In an attempt to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people, we would run missions at all hours of the day and night.
One of our missions was to learn about our target audience, then create and deliver information to that audience.
While waiting to kick off a mission, it was not uncommon to wind up sitting in a Hummer for hours with a salty Sergeant First Class, Vietnam veteran type named SFC Willard. He had been a teacher in his civilian life and he quit due to disagreements in the curriculum. One day he was telling me about the lies public schools were telling our children. In his opinion, the biggest lie of all was, “It’s OK to fail, as long as you try”. I remember him passionately spouting off, “Failure is not OK, failure is NOT an option, and effort is irrelevant!”
“Failure is not OK, failure is NOT an option, and effort is irrelevant!”
Though I admired Willard’s conviction and drive to succeed; when I really thought about it, I realized I had failed multiple times in my life. A lot of my failures were in my control, but some circumstances of the failures were totally out of my control! Out of fascination around his beliefs and sheer boredom, I decided to make a list of my failures. The list was quite large, the volume immense, yet still I was moving forward towards my goals. This fact contracted the statement, “Failure is NOT an option.” Why?
When I started my executive coaching, employee development, and consulting business, I found it shocking how many professionals had some degree of atychiphobia, or fear of failure. If I had experienced that fear myself, it may not have been such a mystery to me. Since I possess the team building leadership strength, “positivity,” I often see the silver lining, and potential negative outcomes are not my focus. In addition, having inventoried the failures of my past while sitting in the desert, I had learned how great it actually is to fail.
Quite simply, I had to help people overcome the paralysis that the fear of failure causes. I started looking back through all my coaching files, trying to discover the reasoning behind the fear of failure, and discover a solution anyone could apply. The answer came to me after finding my old list of “failures and lessons learned” in a box of things I brought back from Iraq. The solution was also there in all the action plans my clients had used to conquer this challenge. There are three things we need to understand about failure to make it a viable option.
Before we cover those three realizations, let’s take a trip down memory lane and do a little exercise. First, inventorying the failures and even reliving the worst failure accomplished was a necessary first step. Yes, I said accomplished! Write down every failure, screw up, mishap, mistake, goal you missed, and challenge you did not rise to meet. Sounds depressing, right? Don’t worry, it gets better! Now, reflect on what you have learned from each of these mistakes and write that down. Finally, take the biggest failure with the biggest lesson you learned and move it to the top of the list.
Each individual I’ve coached that has been plagued by the fear of failure had several things in common. First, when they relived the greatest failure in their lives, they had all gotten over it! Each of them had also learned a valuable lesson from the failure. When asked, every one of these people felt they are better off today for having learned from that failure. In fact, the bigger the mess up, the bigger the knowledge gained, and the more passionate they were around the change was result! This passion makes it easier for them to communicate this solution to others if willing to share the experience. Essentially, bigger failure means better ability to communicate and lead others to avoid these specific circumstances.
Finally, they almost always acknowledge that upon reflection, the worst failure on their list wasn’t that bad in the grand scheme of things. that big failure, their other, lesser screw ups and lessons learned, they wouldn’t be the person they are today.
Let’s Recap How Failure Helps You Improve in Everything, Especially Your Career:
Failure Is The Only Option Sometimes
Everyone makes mistakes and everyone fails at some point. If you lie to yourself by saying failure is not an option, get ready for a never ending string of let downs. There is no hiding or running from the fact that you will fail at something. The sooner you realize this, the sooner you can give yourself a little grace and forgiveness, which helps you move on faster! Don’t be so hard on yourself, you’re probably beating yourself up worse than your, boss, coworkers, or family members. Remember, it’s almost never as bad as you think it is at the time. Since we can’t stop it – roll with it or better, anticipate it with a well thought out contingency plan.
You Can Utilize Your Newfound Knowledge To Create New Positive Outcomes
Ensure that you leverage failure to teach yourself a valuable lesson that you’ll never forget! Write down the failure. Then, next write down what you have learned from it. When faced with the same challenge next time, decide what you will you do differently. When you see someone else facing the same challenge, share that lesson that you have learned with others to help them succeed.
Failure Has Helped Shape Who You Are Today
List your top five personality traits. Are you friendly and outgoing? Are you hardworking and dedicated? Are you organized and punctual? Believe it or not, your failures and your observation of the mistakes of others, have helped you strengthen these attributes. If you list the things you’ve been a part of or witnessed which have caused your personal beliefs to be what they are today, many of those things will be failures. Once you realize failure has molded and shaped some of your greatest characteristics, the sooner you can break the chains of, atychiphobia.
The chains of atychiphobia are:
- Hesitation to try new activities or ideas
- Refusal to step out of one’s comfort zone and grow
- Never setting challenging goals or reaching for new heights
- Expecting too little of ourselves
- Expecting too much of our coworkers, companies, and family members
Don’t take this article as a license to not prepare, execute, or give something your all. I simply want for you to embrace your failures; because to be candid, failure is bound to occur at some point. Use this information to improve yourself, share those lessons with others, and look forward to your next failure! You’re going to adapt and overcome challenges because of all the screw ups you have made. Look forward to everything you will accomplish from your next failure!