by Jim Bruce
[Today’s Tuesday Reading is from Jim Bruce, Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates. He previously served as Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Vice President for Information Systems and CIO at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA. Jim may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.]
From time to time, we each encounter, or are assigned, a task where our first reaction is that we are very likely to have great difficulty, or possibly even fail, if we undertake the task. We all know, and have had, that reaction.
My first colossal failure, at least the first one I can recall, occurred in the early 1940s when I was in the first grade. We were living with my mother’s parents then in a small (perhaps 500 hundred people) East Texas town. One evening students were the entertainment for a parent-teacher event. I, somehow, was designated to sing a solo. The only detail I remember is the very loud laughter that arose from the audience as I sang. My singing was not funny, it was simply horrible. After finishing, I must have exited from the stage very rapidly and very hurt, with that event seared into my memory.
I suspect that everyone has had a similar, devastating experience at some early point in their lives. And, likely we each carry parts of our experience(s) with us. For example, for me I rarely sing, even when there is congregational singing at the church I attend. And, I carefully prepare and mentally rehearse for almost everything, including projects I undertake, presentations I make, and sometimes conversations I need to have.
When we fail, we are embarrassed. It’s a blow to our self-esteem. Guy Winch1 writes: “Everyone hates to fail, but for some people failing represents such a significant psychological threat their motivation to avoid failure exceeds their motivation to succeed. This fear of failure causes them to unconsciously sabotage their chances of success … Failing can elicit feelings such as disappointment, anger, frustration, sadness, regret, and confusion that while unpleasant, are usually not sufficient to trigger full-blown fear of failure. Indeed, this term is somewhat of a misnomer because it is not failure per se that underlies the behavior of people who have it. Rather, a fear of failure is essentially a fear of shame. People who have a fear of failure are motivated to avoid failing not because they cannot manage the basic emotions of disappointment, anger, and frustration that accompany such experiences but because failing also makes them feel deep shame.”
Winch continues: “Shame is a psychologically toxic emotion because instead of feeling bad about our actions (guilt) or our efforts (regret), shame makes us feel bad [about] who we are. Shame gets to the core of our egos, our identities, our self-esteem, and our feelings of emotional well-being. The damning nature of shame makes it urgent for those who have a fear of failure to avoid the psychological threats associated with failing by finding unconscious ways to navigate the implications of a potential failure …”
Further, the “doist” ambition and balance blog reports that “Research has shown a connection between the fear of failure and procrastination. That means that the more anxiety we feel about failing to reach our goals, the less likely we are to take action toward achieving them.”2 That’s why it is so easy to “postpone” even the important tasks that are long on our To Do lists.
Elbert Hubbard, an American writer, said it this way: “There is no failure except in no longer trying.”3 So, when we see that apparently exciting, yet difficult, assignment coming our way, we likely have two sets of emotions. One, elation, focused on can we actually succeed at doing it. The other, dread and shame, focused on the possibility of not succeeding.
We know that the possibility of failure is real. We all have failed and felt shame at some point. I fail, you fail, and so have any number of very famous people who we label as significant examples of success. For example, on a list4 of people who failed early and often in their lives you will find:
From just these few examples, it is clear that early failures do not doom a person to a life of failure. Two other examples make this point even more striking: James Dyson made 5,236 failed prototypes over 15 years before he was successful at using cyclonic separation to create a vacuum cleaner that did not lose suction. And, Thomas Edison famously said “I have not failed 10,000 times. I have not failed once. I have succeeded in proving that those 10,000 ways will not work. When I have eliminated the ways that will not work, I will find the way that will work.”
So, what might you do when confronted with the fact that you might fail at an upcoming task or project? Here is a task list that I have found helpful for both the situation when I’m fairly confident that I will be successful and the situation where I have many concerns:
Most likely, we all have some anxiety, and even a fear of failure, when we are approached with a new task or responsibility. Too often, fear or the shame of failing is the first emotion to appear. Your real assignment is to get beyond the fear and shame of failing and focus on the work. This simple six step process should help you do that. Do consider giving it a try at the first opportunity. I think you will find it helpful.
I trust that you will make your week a good one even with the on-going challenges of COVID-19.
. . . . jim