Finding Refreshment in Failure

The best recovery from failure is the full and complete acknowledgment of it and the motivation to keep trying. It’s incredibly refreshing to be around people who can do this.

Timothy R. Clark, The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety

So true, right? It’s liberating and actually even fun to fall flat in the learning process when joined by others who celebrate our fail-forward learning and then generously (with comic relief) share their own missteps. My bathroom has a couple of framed quotes as reminders: 

✨ Leap and the net will appear.
✨ Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.

Indeed, courage over comfort is what breaks open possibility, passion and purpose. And, survival is built upon adaptation, not denial. So to embrace failure, others and our own, whether perceived or otherwise, is the only way forward.

But it takes a village, yes? We don’t go this route alone.

Our External World

Organizational anthropologist, Timothy Clark, defines psychological safety as a culture of rewarded vulnerability. Professor Amy defines it as an environment where it is safe to take interpersonal risks with the belief that we will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes. 

When we are in an environment of psychological safety, we are empowered to create a reciprocal commitment by modeling our own vulnerability through a fail-forward communication exchange.

For example:  

1. We admit fallibility and acknowledge temporary incompetence
2. We welcome failure not as the exception to the rule but as the way forward.
3. Our words and actions demonstrate that failure is a currency of success.
4. We provide reassurance that discouragement comes before the discovery.

How does this work for you? Do you engage in this reciprocity? Even if those above you do not? 

Taking these risks is risky.

Our brain knows it, too. The large, ancient and primitive part of our brain is wired to perceive danger – always on alert. As a result, our brains often can’t tell the difference between a real threat to our physical survival and a threat to our ego (!).

So how do we create environments of rewarded vulnerability when life and situations are far from perfect and challenge our confidence and belonging? 

Our Internal World

In this excellent, animated and short video Locating Yourself – A Key to Conscious Leadership, the authors posit that we are either above the line or below the line (with our primitive brain) at any point in time. Thus, the first step in a conscious shift is to locate ourselves along the line. When we are above the line, we are open, curious and committed to learning. When we are below the line, we are closed, defensive and stuck in our old stories.    
It’s a pretty miserable place, below the line. We become convinced that we are without choices. We lose touch with our resourcefulness and forget that there are many ways to perceive a situation, even if we can’t change it. 
It gets particularly hard when we’re in this place of guarded vulnerability in both our internal and external worlds. 

My Rescue Remedy

When I need a personal intervention, fast, when I’m spiraling down the dark hole and cringing at my words and actions, and when old voices roar:
You will never be able to manage ________
You will never be able to change  ________
You will never have a sense of control over  ______
…I make a practice to grab hold of the looping thought and yank it (triumphantly) into the light, exclaiming (with slightly exaggerated exuberance): 

Well done! You feel like a fool and this means you’re learning!

I’m serious. I really do this. I’ve even created a list in Word and put a gold star next to each awkward or painful experience. I encourage you to try this. I imagine you’ll be surprised at what lands on your list. What you thought was big and thorny doesn’t seem so awful after all. And, then there’s all that good learning that follows as well.

Sometimes this rescue remedy is just enough to lift me once again up and into the above-the-line fresh air.  

It’s a practice of commitment to resonant action over and over again. And, yes, it means discomfort is the price of a meaningful life. But when we get friendly with this place, and share it with others, it is so darn refreshing. Like ice tea with fresh mint on a summer’s day.

Here’s to your refreshing failures – I’m right there with you!

P.S. I am a certified 4 Stages of Psychological Safety practitioner and educator. I provide this experiential learning lens for teams and also in individual, executive coaching. Curious? Schedule an exploratory call.

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