This post was originally published on The Student Affairs Collective on November 11, 2014.
One of the highlights of 2014 for me was seeing the many narratives that surfaced during #SAFailsForward conversation in June. Failure has so many negative connotations and yet is integral to innovation, learning, and growth. My own failures have defined my success and my direction in life. For a long time now, I’ve made failure a core element of my philosophy of practice.
In the past when I have hired a new student staff team, one of my signature phrases comes up in the training session on expectations, in which I would I tell them that the greatest gift I give to them is the freedom to fail. I definitely get some confused and apprehensive faces looking back at me. But I always hear back from at least one member of the team at the end of their contract, that this statement simultaneously terrified and energized them.
I think many of us in Student Affairs use some kind of similar philosophy when we hire and train our student leaders. The opportunities we provide are meant to help them learn and grow, and some degree of failure is a healthy and required part of that process. The most important thing to understand about this approach is that the freedom to fail does not equate to a reality where failure is common. In fact, more often than not, the greatest successes come from this type of empowerment. However, I started to realize a gap in this approach in that I haven’t really put a lot of work into educating my staff on how to bounce back after a failure.
After being invited to present at our fall Leadership Conference, I facilitated a session titled “Bouncing Back from Failure” and it turned out to be an incredibly popular and transformative discussion. We had some great discourse about how we perceive failure, and how we perceive success. At the end of the discussion, we came up with four steps that summed up what we defined as a healthy way to deal with things that go wrong, which I thought I would share with you.
Don’t try to learn right after you fail.
Give yourself time and space to grieve and process all of the emotions associated with failure. Anger, sadness, disappointment and rejection take up a lot of mental energy. It is vital to give these emotions the attention they require so that they can run their course. Too often, we try to file them away and ignore them, which eventually results in damage to our psyche and an inability to move on from the experience that caused them. For me, I need to let myself cry and be angry for a while before I can even think of doing anything else. Depending on the severity of the failure maybe we also shouldn’t be making and big, life decisions until we’ve fully processed the emotional fallout either.
Forgive yourself, and forgive others.
We all learn as children that accepting failure means accepting blame in some fashion. But why does blame have to equate to shame? Shame is just a social construct that keeps members of a community in line with the accepted social norms – useful at times, but often counterproductive and even oppressive. Guilt is the internalization of shame which can be paralyzing and damaging to those trying to process a failure. The solution to this is forgiveness, but we often have a much easier time forgiving others than we do in forgiving ourselves. It is important to recognize this as a learned and practicable skill. It gets easier the more we do it.
Do the thing you most fear.
Whether that means apologizing, tackling a neglected task, re-connecting with someone, or just showing up. These are the times in our life where we build character. Again, these are learned skills that become easier to draw on the more they are used. Once it is done, it becomes less painful to recollect the failure and hopefully you can finally get to a point where you can begin to be objective.
Define what you learned from the event and how you can do it better next time.
Some of this means evaluating at the variables that you had under your control and figuring out how you could mitigate those that are not.
Thanks and good luck failing forward!