Failure in varying degrees is something we all experience in our careers at some point, so knowing how to handle and respond to it early will set you up to roll and recover with the punches. Charley Zheng, Freelance Senior Brand Strategist (currently at Pereira O'Dell), opens up about her experience with processing and embracing failure in a way that keeps your emotional and psychological self intact. Here's Charley—
“You’re not where you should be.”
“You’re falling behind.”
“I’m sorry, but we are putting you on a performance improvement plan.”
The words landed like cement in my stomach. Twenty minutes ago, I had marched into my annual review confident and optimistic. Months before that, I spoke to my boss about getting a promotion and had agreed on a set of actions that would get me there. Up until that fated meeting with him, I was sure I was meeting expectations—stumbling through them, sure—but meeting them nonetheless. When I realized I wasn’t getting the promotion I wanted, AND was going to be put on a performance improvement plan (a precursor to losing my job), I was crushed by an infinite weight of humiliation and shame. The weeks and months that followed had me paralyzed inside a world of my failures, as I struggled to understand with intense severity where I had seemingly derailed.
Today we live in a fail-fast, fail-often culture. This originated in Silicon Valley where conventional wisdom has it that 90% of startups fail. It seems that mainstream tech culture not only invokes failure, but celebrates it. Yet, what does it really mean to embrace failure? How does one actually deal with the psychological toll of failure when it strikes and how can we see beyond all the hurt, shame, and embarrassment in the moment?
1) Zoom out.
It’s all too easy to let single instances consume us: the awkward first interview. The botched presentation. The uncomfortable encounter with a higher-up outside of work. Sometimes these moments linger endlessly in our heads and they feel like the end of us. We replay them over and over again in a relentless cycle of self-punishment.
To get myself out of that cycle, I started to think of my life as a story that was being written in real-time. I took myself out of the single instance, and started to look at my experience as part of an entire chain of instances. This transformed my view of failures and helped me recognize that although challenging, they were perhaps more importantly, transitory.
It helps to zoom out in this way. To take yourself out of the moment. Look at failure as a thing that continues your story, not an ending.
2) Tell someone.
Talking openly about our failures with others is just as important as sharing our successes. It may not feel like it’s the most natural thing to do. Even in this fail-fast world of ours, it’s far easier to conceal failure than it is to pull back the curtains on it.
For me, talking about my failures with people I trusted (and key word here is trust) was truly therapeutic for me. Receiving support and acceptance from others as a result helped me face my failure in a healthy and productive way, both emotionally and mentally.
By giving yourself the chance to openly examine your failures, and allowing different points of view to shape your perspective of them, you enable your failures to impart useful lessons. You may even find you’re not alone. And this in itself is extremely valuable.
3) Do something fun.
This might seem totally illogical. Shouldn’t we be devoting ourselves to fixing our failures—showing 'em who’s boss?
Our emotions and thoughts closely follow our actions. What we do often influences how we feel. This may sound obvious, but in the context of coping with failure, we often forget to simply…enjoy ourselves. For weeks I was consumed with nothing else but the performance improvement plan, dreading each day as it came, and feeling extremely pessimistic about what I could bring to the table. I stopped going out with friends because I was too exhausted from doing everything I could to save myself at my job.
And then, a big snow storm hit the mountains. My snowboard had gone unused for weeks. When I finally dragged myself out, I had one of my happiest days—possibly ever. Not only did the choice to go do something fun take my mind off of my failure, it somehow made it seem less of a big deal by the time I returned to it.
Similar to zooming out, doing something fun helps you realize that there are more things—bigger and more joyous things—in the world than just your failures. It’s so important to broaden your attention to the “everything else” too, and when you do, your feelings follow.
What the fail-fast, fail-often folks don’t tell you is how to do it in a way that doesn’t wreck you emotionally and psychologically, because the fact is—failure still sucks. But by zooming out, talking it out, and allowing yourself some fun, you might find that failure isn’t such a big deal after all.
You got this,
Connect with Charley via Instagram and LinkedIn.