August 27, 2021

3 ways to reframe failing and change your relationship with yourself, to grow through challenges

Growing up, failure of any kind in my house was not tolerated. How was failure defined to me as a kid? My perception was that “failing” was a lack of perfectionism, that in order not to fail and receive mocking or lack of approval, that I must mould myself into what I perceived as “perfectly” smart, pretty, people pleasing and therefore hooked on external validation for self-worth.

The belief that the self was a fixed identity, that we were either born smart or worthy or beautiful or not, became a source of deep anxiety for me around failure. Our failings in our family were considered to mean that intrinsically you were less.

The failings of others, were cast with judgment, ostracization and humiliation. This only meant that a fear of failure became bigger than life itself, that failing was some sort of death, that it was to be avoided at all costs so that you could survive. And so, I avoided failing at all costs.

This way of thinking, a cultural perception, a family view, meant that failure seemed very black and white. You are either the best, or you are nothing. How did the school system at the time contribute to this perception?

In my primary school, achievement was considered everything to the teachers as authority figures and yet the cause of bullying by your peers for standing out. This caused even more anxiety around failing, is it better to be the best and seek adult validation, or be the worst and be accepted by your peers? It seemed to be an impossible decision for me as a child, who do you seek validation from the most? 

As I grew older, my fixed view of failure meant that while I did achieve, it was never enough. When perfectionism is needed to feel a sense of self-worth, nothing you ever achieve will fill that need to keep beating yourself up when you perceive you fall short.

I have discovered that being an ambitious person can come from two very different places. One is to grow and achieve to live a full exciting life of challenges, to enjoy the process and to know that there will always be successes and failures, this is part of growing.

The other way is continually be in a state of pushing yourself to achieve to fulfil a missing part of self, to avoid the idea that failure would mean death of self-worthiness. The first way of thinking is based on loving your sense of self and life, the second is based on the fear of what you will be if you fail.

For me in business, as in karate, there is the daily practice of facing failure. But does failure really exist or is it just how we frame growth in our minds? The mirrors in the dojo can provide an insight into how we face ourselves when we inevitably don’t achieve a goal, but what story are we telling ourselves?

It may be a big or small failure, but do we see it as a loss? Or do we see growth as needing failure as a part of the process? In truth, how can we possibly succeed if we have not failed, most likely a lot if we wish to do many things in our lives? 

So, what about you? What was the family, culture, community beliefs around failure that you grew up with? How did these beliefs shape your early years? How have you changed your own relationship to failure as you have gained life experience? What is your view on failing now?

Here are 3 ways I personally work on my own fixed mindset around failure. In my recent company and the results not being what our team had planned, I have had to revisit these for my own survival, so that I can see how to grow through the challenges we had and learn for the next project. These are a work in progress for me, what strategies would you add to this list?

  1. Change your language. Failure sounds like an end point, its not, its just part of the process. Sounds easy, right? Its not! Our cultural conditioning is powerful. However we can consciously work to shift our focus and tell ourselves a different story. If something has not met our expectations, it is not the end, it is just learning and information. If it feels better, change your language about your learning process to something like, “I went for my green belt at grading and the process of the test helped me see what I can work on in my training for the next grading.”
  1. Everything is training. There is no test. Again, this is a reframe of the fixed ideas around failure, if we see everything we do in any scenario as training, then we are free to let go of the expectation that leads to a black or white outcome. Instead, every experience has value and we place the value of “winning” on the internal learning, rather than the external result.
  1. Be humble. This one is hard when we define ourselves by our external achievements, but I have found the more that I shift my own ideas of failure into a learning mindset, that I can understand, we all live and we all learn. There is no easy path. There will be challenges. There will be suffering. But we do get to choose if we are inflicting more suffering upon ourselves by the way that we view our own growth. 

And owning how I see the events of my own life and who I am becoming by making choices on how I think and feel, feels a lot like, success.

“There are two mistakes along the way to Mastery: Not starting it and not going all the way.” 
~ Shi Heng Li

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  1. To summarise a point from this article, the excessively harsh social perceptions of what failure is and what it means to fail can be extremely stressful and pressuring towards those are directly affected by those perceptions, especially when put in contrast with those who aren't, resulting in a less than ideal mental state. On this point, I agree this perception is not the right way to address failure.

    However, in many areas of society this is now very much in past tense. When looking at places like schools, the perception has basically done a full 180. You hear phrases such as "Everybody is a winner", "There are no losers', and suddenly the concept of failure has lost its meaning. In my opinion, this viewpoint is worse than the harsh perception of failure, the main reason being that it makes people think that they can get somewhere good in life without succeeding, which is entirely unrealistic.

    Even more unfortunate is what this opposing view of failure has on the view of success. If everybody is a winner and nobody is a loser, then coming first is the same as coming last. If there is no distinction for coming first or consequence for coming last, then there is no reason to try and come first. And this is something I've personally experienced and still experience to this day, a complete lack of motivation for succeeding.

    This lack of motivation has noticeable consequences from high school dropouts to unnurtured talent, and the only exceptions to this are those who are still influenced by the extreme perception of failure from people like family members, or those who have found something that they have a strong desire to succeed at.

    There is a middle-ground perception of failure somewhere that provides an optimal balance of pressure and motivation. But I have yet to see it.

    Success has a very bland taste when there is no consequence of failure.
    ~ Me (probably)

    1. Hi Torsten,

      Thank you so much for sharing such a deep, thoughtful and considered response to this article! I found your insights on your experiences at school particularly enlightening and important, as this is where so much of our base conditioning occurs. Thank you for sharing also your personal experiences around the way that success and failure are presented in the school environment and how those relate to your own motivation and the motivation you have seen in other young people.

      There were many questions I had reading your response that I think are really important for young people such as yourself, studying karate, learning to be leaders and considering, what does it mean to be a leader? What does it mean to lead ourselves too? If we get to define what success and failure are, beyond the limitations of what we have been taught, how will we define what those terms mean, in our own lives, so that we can create the results we most desire? As you said, motivation is important and if we feel that schools are not hitting the mark on this balance, what can you as a young leader do to change that?

      I think that your deep thinking mind combined with Karate training are an amazing combination to go beyond the limits of culture, and to define what inspires you to be the best version of yourself you can be. I know you will inspire others when you do this too. Thank you for inspiring me with your thinking beyond the status quo!! I love outside of the box thinking!! That's how we create a better world. I can not wait to see what you decide to do with your own infinite potential within. Wishing you every success!!!

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