Slowly but surely the message that it is good to fail seems to be spreading. Earlier this year Freakonomics podcasters Stephen Dubner and Stevin Levitt took up the topic in a podcast entitled ‘failure is your friend’. They argue that the fear of failure stops many young entrepreneurs from suggesting new and novel ways to approach old concerns.
Being a particularly accident prone child, or daredevil, depending on who you asked, I learned early on that knowing how NOT to do things comes through a process of trial and error. Sledging down the icy slopes of a WWII bunker on a sheet of corrugated iron resulted in almost cutting off my thumb. Trying to hide the fact that I had fallen into the water by buying endless rounds on the fun fair’s merry-go-round was inventive, the idea of catching a cold didn’t dawn until the first sneeze.
Learning from experience
I thank my mother for her wise understanding that I needed to learn through trial and error, rather than accepting others’ word for it as most people experience their early ‘failings’ with a sense of devastation, shame, and criticism. Of course, as children learning to walk and talk we don’t feel ashamed of falling over, of saying ‘da’ instead of ‘dad’. The awareness of anything called ‘failure’ comes from the outside; “why did you do that?”, “that wasn’t very smart”, “you have to think things through first, not just leap into them.” And so on and so on. And while there is some truth to these statements, more often than not the people who throw these comments at us are somehow trying to off load their own sense of failure; as parents, as teachers, or as mentors. After all, failing children or students, make their parents and teachers look bad.
As a parent you keep giving your child a little more space to grow and become independent. And in doing do, they may sometimes literally fall and hurt themselves. At that point it is important to remember that the ‘fall’ isn’t a sign that the next step was wrong, it’s just part of the process of doing something new. And that goes for us grown ups too. Failing, or getting it wrong, just means that we are in the process of learning something new, trying something we’ve not done before. Perhaps even something other people haven’t done before. Sailing in uncharted waters. And while that is scary, it’s also the way we move life forward. And in doing so we join the explorers of new continents, the space missions, the inner space astronauts, the mystics, and every single toddler taking his or her first steps.
It’s okay to fail, but ‘good’ to fail?
So going back to our Freakonomics friends, how do we take the leap from failure being ok, to it actually being seen as something to strive for? Imagine telling our potential prospective employer that one of the qualities you’ll be bringing to the job is a great enthusiasm for failure. Most people would be sent home but the loss would be the employer’s. The point that Levitt and Dubner make so well in their podcast, is that the avoidance of failure can lead to more, even greater, sometimes catastrophic failure. And they are not talking as psychologists but as economists. Yet I totally agree. If the fear of failure, of making the wrong decision, or looking stupid, stops us from acting on our best instincts and suggesting something novel, then we may well be standing in the way of progress.
Imagine you are the lone voice in an organisation, be it your school, your company, your hospital or your troops. You have been noticing that something needs to change. But, you are afraid to speak out because a) you might be wrong, and b) the change might not work out. So life goes on pretty much as usual. And as one faulty assumption begins to build on the next it becomes harder and harder to be that lone voice that says; ‘what if we tried something else’. In the end the school may implement a totally outdated bullying policy, or the company may stick with tried and tested products that gradually disappear from the market.
The role of narcissism in failure
It is not a coincidence that in a deeply narcissistic society, failure has become such a taboo. Narcissism can very well be explained in the context of failure. The greatest Grandiosity is always fed by a deeply denied fear of failure. When we disconnect from being fallible all that is left is an inflated false self, or a collapsed insecure self. The narcissistic wound is about either believing you have to be perfect at all costs, because imperfection leads to loss of love, or the lesser known version, believing that we are too useless to even try, and that there will always be people bigger and better than us, so why even go there. In a terribly simplified form, this is what happens when these two sides of the same coin, become like shifting continents in our psyche, moving further and further apart.
But there is also such a thing as healthy Narcissism; a way of being proud of what we do well, and not devastated by the things we mess up. Where we can experience ourselves as ‘imperfectly perfect’, or the one I like best; amazingly fallible.
In a society that has become allergic to failure we need to be brave and reclaim the mindset of a toddler; this didn’t work, I’ll try that instead. So when I feel insecure and afraid that I am doing the wrong thing, stepping outside the mould, I try to think back to my first steps, my first words, and my earliest making sense of the world. We are invited to be as free today as we were then, falling down, getting up, tumbling and scrabbling, and meeting ourselves with empathic care as we are reassured that this was just one more step on the path to deeper wisdom.