July 24

“Failure isn’t fatal, but failure to change might be.” – John Wooden

Failure is not a name to answer to or a badge of shame to wear.

Imagine you’re walking across a rope bridge that you’ve walked across a hundred times. As you’re crossing, you suddenly feel one of the planks snap beneath your feet, and watch it plunge into the rushing river below. You freeze, with your foot suspended in mid-air. In that moment, what you do next is incredibly important. If you panic, you might end up in the river too. Or, you might freeze in place, unable to move. Either way, you are in trouble.

How do you get moving again? You have to tell yourself a story about all of the times you’ve successfully crossed the bridge in the past, and remind yourself that you’ve got this. It’s highly unlikely to happen twice.

If you work long-arc projects, you probably know the frustration and pain of having a project fail to live up to expectations. After expending so much time, energy, and focus on something you care about, it can be devastating when it just doesn’t click. What you do next is very important. The story you tell yourself in those moments may define the next few years of your life and work.

Unfortunately, if you aren’t intentional about that story, one will be chosen for you. In Louder Than Words, I wrote about how false narratives can draw you off course and prevent you from standing firm in the face of uncertainty. The narratives you tell yourself define your life and work.

Psychologist Martin Seligman explained that there are three ways in which our internal beliefs or narratives become damaging: we make them personal, pervasive, and permanent.

Personal: I failed, so I must be a failure.

Pervasive: I failed in this instance, so I’ll probably fail in every instance.

Permanent: I failed once, so I’ll probably fail always.

Of course, each of these three narratives is a lie, but in the moment it feels very true. The narrative fills the vacuum previously filled by our unmet expectations. It’s collateral damage we experience when walking through the refining fires in the depth of the valley of the creative process.

Don’t answer to the name “Failure”. For better or worse, the story you choose to live out establishes your boundaries. 

Question: Is there a false narrative about failure that is preventing you from doing good work?

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