Like you, I’ve failed

We celebrate success.

In fact, we wear our success on our chests like a badge.

We post our successes on Facebook, tell them to our friends over happy hour, regale our family with the tale over dinner–in fact, that’s probably the first thing we do when we get home from work.

But why don’t we treat our failures the same way? Why don’t we have festivals for our failures? Why isn’t there a section on the book club agenda for our biggest screwup or a designated spot in workplace meetings to acknowledge how we have grown from our mistakes?

Research and time have proved that failure is inevitable. Amy Edmonson, a researcher, says that we can use it as a motivator in the workplace. Her articles on the subject are well worth reading.

Onward and Upward

I am studying social impact strategy at the University of Pennsylvania. My cohort met face-to-face last week, and our convening culminated in a lecture on failure. Yes, we ended with failure. I’m sure you’re thinking, “Why didn’t it end on a high note?” Well, for me this was the perfect way to end the week. The lecture was titled, “Onward and Upward.”

One of our instructors began the discussion by saying, “Failure can be the framework for why we do what we do.” That’s right. Sometimes you don’t find your mission or the right path until you’ve failed. In fact, failure can put you on a path toward greatness.

In my blog article, “Stop Staring At Your Screen,” I talk about how I went through a multi-year journey at work. I was scaling my team from about a dozen people to more than 30 and creating a strategy that wasn’t fully embraced by our coalition members. We had to build our ship as we were sailing and convince people to come along for the ride after we left the dock. I can’t tell you how many times I hit speed bumps. Some people might say I failed at building relationships, communicating or meeting my objectives. Looking back, it was the most miserable thing I’ve ever done professionally, far more miserable than working at a TV station for a year when I didn’t believe in its values. That year, I cried pretty much once a week while driving to work.

And I was at a low, lower than tearful rides to work.  As a lobbyist who manages other lobbyists, my individual success is measured by how many laws we pass as a team each year. The year my team launched a new initiative under my direction, we passed ZERO laws….that’s right, not a single law was passed by this new shiny entrepreneurial part of my department. Thankfully, the original arms of my team were exceeding expectations and we still hit our annual goals. Here’s where I was fortunate: I never saw that year as a failure.  Each day, I thought about the day before, focusing on the possibilities for the next day and what I needed to do to build something that would be withstanding. I had an eye towards the future and trusted that this new model would work and what I was feeling could be chalked up to trial and error. Today, the arm that failed for a year is successful and has passed more than 45 laws in three years.

But let’s get back to my time at UPenn. This is coming full circle, I promise.  We were asked to write our biggest failure on a post-it and then place it on a wall. I took a Sharpie and boldly wrote, “not spending more time with my husband, parents and brother,” and timidly placed it on the wall. We were given instructions to return to the wall, read the post-its and find one that resonated with us. I found one that struck a chord. It was what I promised myself I WOULD NOT do in 2018: “stretching myself too thin by hopping around between volunteer, paid and personal commitments.” “Amen, sister,” I said to myself.

We blame as individuals

As we returned to our seats, we began reflections. One of my classmates had what I consider a pretty profound insight. “We blame as individuals but we celebrate success as a team,” she said. During that miserable year of scaling at work–the one worse than the year at the TV station– I recall my boss telling me people felt I wasn’t with them in the trenches. I didn’t understand because emails could prove that I was logging off the latest, arriving at work the earliest and not even watching my favorite Real Housewives shows in order to give work my all. I finally understood what she meant. I made a decision while at UPenn to talk about failure and how we can fail forward. This would be my way to set a new tone at my workplace.

My first day back at work after my class at UPenn, I held a managers’ meeting where we had our first “Fail Fest.” There was dedicated time on the agenda for the group to celebrate failures. When I asked for one brave person to start us off, there was DEAD SILENCE, even after I said we would all clap and cheer them on. We finally got through one story in our first fail fest. It felt good, and it’s something that I will permanently put into practice both with my team and for myself. There’s something to be said about sharing your worst failure. For me, it feels like I’m not holding a secret and it makes me feel human. You should explore what it does for you when you say it loud and proud.

Understanding failure

Here are some tricks of the trade that I learned from my lecture at UPenn:

  1. Write your failures down: by writing your failures down, you fully process them.
  2. Take a bow: tell others that you have failed, and if you can, try literally taking a bow and celebrating.  
  3. Shift your perspective: think about why you missed your mark and how you can use it as a lesson learned to improve your situation.

So next time you see me, don’t ask me about my latest accomplishment. Ask me what I have learned from my most recent failure and congratulate me for that success. I would love to start a conversation about failure. If you want to jump in, share one of your biggest failures below and tell us how you shifted perspective to overcome it. That’s what this tribe is all about- helping each other to do really big things.

PS. This is a picture of me during our exercise at UPenn. My face says everything! Thank you to Crouching Tiger’s Eva for taking this picture and finding the most amazing light. Ha!


#failure #inspiration #movementmakertribe

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