In order to really explore and create something new in our lives or work, we need to step out of certainty, try something different and take some risks sometimes. Not a lot of growth happens if we only do exactly what we have always done, or only step into things we can guarantee will 'succeed.' This is true in our work in the world, for innovation process (where I sometimes bring this Work), and also in many areas of life and relationship.
In recent leadership training sessions and in my web-class in The Work@work, we have been spending time noticing all the places our thinking about failure causes suffering, keeps us stuck and limits us in both our professional and personal context. The more we inquire into 'failure' the more I am stunned by how deeply it runs and how limiting it can be. In a recent session, participants were noticing strong physical reactions as we started to really look at our failure stories, some of which are decades old. Powerful stuff. And good to have a way to work with it effectively and compassionately because these stories can stay with us for a long time. They don't just go away, even if we bury them they continue to inform our choices, actions and feelings until we get them clear.
We know sayings like “trial and error” is a way to learn, and many of us know about 're-framing' our failures or putting a positive spin on them. But in a culture so heavily focused on success and getting things 'right', most of us experience stressful responses to failing, carry painful stories of failure that can drag us down and can even be immobilizing. We also often find ourselves trying to avoid situations where we might fail, which can have a very limiting effect on our lives and work. It turns out the category of places we could fail can encompass just about everything.
The beliefs and stories we hold about 'failure' when it happens (the meaning we add) has a powerful impact on our experience of our own failures, and also how we are able to respond when others 'fail' – whether they are our children, our partners, our team members, our employees or our leaders.
Common patterns that flow from unquestioned (and often unconscious) limiting beliefs about failure include blaming others (or ourselves, or back and forth between both), withdrawing, giving up, excessive thinking to try to 'figure it out', avoidance of similar situations, numbing, procrastination, depression, addictions, fear of loss.. and many more stressful responses.
When these patterns of fearful thinking and stress kick in it also effects the chemistry in our body and our brain function as we shift to the a physiological fear based response. This can reduce our learning capacity and big picture and creative thinking, which is usually just what we need when we are wanting to step up into something new.
If we want to gain the benefit of our failures – and be able to genuinely process them, learn and move forward, it is helpful to use The Work to inquire into our own thinking about failure: our past failures, other people's failures, and our underlying concepts about what failure is and what it means to fail.
The Work gives us a way to directly engage the thinking that gets us stuck in the stressful response to failing or anticipating failure. To open our mind back up in the face of trying something new, and to open our mind up to learning and growth (and possibly also the less visible successes) when things do go the way we wanted them to or thought that they should.
How do you react? What happens when you believe that something you did was a failure? When you are afraid you will fail? Or when you believe someone else failed? You can identify your thoughts and take them through the 4 questions and turnarounds of The Work, access the learning, shift your own patters, take whatever responsibility you need to, and find freedom from this life limiting concept of both “failure” and “success”.
Trial and error comes with error, and the depth of learning we need now comes from both success and failure, from building our capacity for each, and also our ability to think outside of of the limiting duality of both. Doing The Work isn't just re-framing the thought, it is a way deeply shift your thinking patterns and open your mind to new ways of thinking and being.