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Failure: Are You Avoiding It Or Learning From It?

April 1, 2013

If you're anything like me, 2013 has been a year of growing pains. I took on new responsibilities in my job that push me to do a whole bunch of things that I've never done before, like lead a marketing team and design branding and messaging. I'm now at the helm of a group of people and am trying to figure out how to make it all work together. It's stretching me in new and exciting ways. It can also be painful at times, because I am making a lot of big, high-profile mistakes and am sometimes unclear about how to move forward.

These are my growing pains, and they're a good thing, because, well, they mean that I'm growing.

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However, in the moments of actual pain, when an initiative fails or my team screws up, I don't really want to feel the agony of failure. So I, like most of us, have found a way of dodging the feeling: I get angry instead. I'll mentally rage against anyone who may have been involved in the incident. Here is a choice excerpt of a recent mental rant:

"I can't believe she didn't consult with me before prodding the partner to write that email. What was she thinking? How am I supposed to do my job when my team doesn't consult me? A bunch of amateurs."

If left unchecked, I'll got on ranting for a while. There's something powerful about anger, and it certainly keeps me from feeling the pain and embarrassment of whatever mistake we made. This is how I avoid feeling like I've failed.

We each have our own way(s) to avoid the pain of failing. Some people take what I call the "sad sap" route. They throw themselves a "pity party" and focus on thoughts about why they are not good enough. Here is how a sad sap might sound: "Oh, I knew I couldn't do this. Why do I always mess up? Everything's ruined and it's all my fault and why do I even bother? I'm hopeless. The project's hopeless. My job is hopeless." The sad saps distract themselves with inner drama, beating themselves up in order not to feel the pain of failure.

Some people take the "fake avoider" route. They run away from the problem, even sometimes pretending that it didn't happen. Here is how an avoider might sound: "What project? Oh, that one. Yes, yes, it's going great. Just as we wanted. I am sure it will be fine. Say, how are the Red Sox doing in spring training?" The fake avoiders ignore the issue so they don't need to deal with facing the truth of their failure.

The problem with taking one of the above "routes," is that they rob us of actually learning the real lessons behind each of our failures. For example, if I'm not careful, I'll spend all my energy blaming and raging against someone else, instead of understanding my role in the failure, and that means I don't learn my lesson for the next time. A sad sap is so busy pitying herself that she doesn't constructively see the actual situation. A fake avoider simply won't even look at the situation to learn from it. In choosing any of these routes, we avoid dealing with failing and growing beyond the failure.

The key, then, is to catch yourself going down one of these mental routes and consciously take a different path. Instead, make it a point to feel your failure, deal with the lessons to be learned from it, then heal.

What is your reaction to failure in order to avoid feeling growing pains, or any pains at all? Write a note and share.

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Samantha Sutton, PhD
Samantha Sutton, PhD
Biological Engineer

Samantha Sutton has a B.S. in Electrical Engineering from the University of Illinois and a Ph.D. in Biological Engineering from MIT as a Howard Hughes Predoctoral Fellow. She combines her knowledge of engineering design principles with coaching insights to help clients articulate what they truly want and then overcome obstacles in their way. She has presented her life design philosophy to companies such as Google and the National Cancer Institute as well as universities like Duke, Stanford, and Yale.