On Fear of Failure – the Value of Being ‘Out There’

CourageI haven’t quite got the hang of blogging yet … but it strikes me that here’s a chance to explore this issue of courage, and not only in theory. Even exposing my thoughts and feelings on a blog feels risky enough to need a bit of courage! I started off thinking each blog must be perfect, correct, special, akin to a Harvard Business Review publication! But the lovely and interesting responses to my last one had me see something different – it’s about sharing, dialogue, connection, service, not about being right.

Last week a friend asked me ‘What do you mean when you say a person is ‘out there’, you say it often, you seem to like those people?’ On reflection, I mean I see a person who is willing to go to their edge, to pursue a life that for them is exuberant and full. Not because it’s easy to them, not because they are fearless, but because they go forward conscious of possible failure. They go beyond their own comfort zone with awareness, they choose to stretch themselves. In their stretch they are vulnerable to failure – that takes courage.

I admire people who bring their gift to the world, who overcome their fear of failure to do it. Like the doctors who risk life threatening mistakes to prolong life, like the performers and artists who expose themselves to enrich us – the list is endless. I feel grateful they’re ‘out there’, that they risk failure on a grand scale. They too feel the fears of not being ‘enough’ (good enough, lovable enough, strong enough, clever enough…) but they take the risk to bring us the fruits of their labour. Without each of us exercising our courage muscles life would be less…

I see myself as being open to feedback and learning. Probably in some ways I am, but – and it’s a big but – I can also shy away from real risky stuff, staying in waters where I’m pretty sure of succeeding. So, it was like me to go for big promotions at work only when invited to, to choose writing reports, (which gave time to edit what I want to say!) over live presentations. It is my pattern to minimise risk of public failure. So, when I joined Axialent I dived into uncertain waters. I could do my work in culture research and consulting well, top of my game there. But facilitating a Conscious Business workshop? Absolutely No Idea.

What happened? In front of the master, Fred Kofman, I led a 15-minute session on a Conscious Business concept. Crash and burn. Yes, I told a great story but I failed, failed miserably to land the intended message with the audience. Ouch. In front of fellow partners whose opinions matter to me. Double Ouch.

In the following hours, after the ‘it’s unfair’, ‘you did fine’ soothing sessions were over, I came to see how rarely I exposed myself to such risk… and how my sense of myself as open to learning was a pretence. I became conscious of my fear of not being good enough. I got a glimpse of how this fear held me back from exposing myself to the opinions of others; of how rarely I ask others for feedback; of how defensive I am to criticism; how my striving to appear good enough makes me anxious; I was truly shocked to realise how strong my fear of failure in this sphere was.

Me, resistant to learning from mistakes? But surely not? I espouse belief in mistakes leading to innovation, to personal growth, to learning, and I’m someone who forgives mistakes in others. But in that experience, I faced how little I actually exposed myself to it in my own life. I was cheating myself of the very thing I said I believed in – learning from mistakes.

What did I learn from that presentation you might ask? One comment stays with me – Fred said something like (you know how you can’t quite remember the moment because you’re in your own head trying not to cry, overcoming your own emotions of embarrassment, right?) ‘You tried something risky, it didn’t work, but I like that you tried’ … at the time it was small consolation but now I get it … I tried and it failed. I learned, in a way I will never forget and could not have learned so well any other way, what I could have done differently. I failed because I wanted to do a great, memorable presentation; but in my anxiety to look good I clean forgot to connect to the people I was with, to be open to their input. I forgot about them, did not allow their participation, I focussed on my own ‘perfect’ presentation. I missed the essence of what differentiates a great presentation from a good one: connection with others.

At Axialent we use the concept of the comfort zone (where we live automatically), the stretch (or learning) zone and the panic zone (where our emotions hijack us and we cannot think, let alone learn) as a frame in our work. We encourage people to move into their own stretch zone (or to use my language, to put themselves ‘out there’!) if they want to make the most of their time in our workshop. Now I realise that zone is individual, it’s different for each of us. For some, intimacy feels threatening, for others public exposure scares the pants off them; for some a tube ride is terrifying, feels life-threatening, for others it’s a mountain peak.

Living more of my life in that vulnerable ‘stretch’ zone is a way to build up my own ‘courage’ muscles. Writing a blog is a bit ‘out there’ for me. Thank you for reading this far. I wonder where the stretch lies for you?

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About the author

Cathy is Axialent’s Managing Partner. She leads the UK & Nordic market as well as our Culture Practice, with an eye on continuously developing and improving our approach to culture transformation journeys. She has a passion for pulling the right levers for change, identifying what a company can do to shift to a higher-performing culture. Read more>

10 thoughts

  1. The blogging is for sharing your experience about the subject. It might be niche industry or your personal blog. It will not succeed in short time. You need to have a long-term goal for blogging. Keep posting the content that you like. Forget about what critics will say.

    Sharing information is important than thinking about the exposure. You will gradually improve the writing as you move ahead.

    Thank you

  2. LOVE this!! It actually prompted a “follow” that linking to another excellent article here did not (“Undiscussables” – for an upcoming Nov. 2013 post). “Management Talks and Service Walks” is mine — I’ll ping the linked article when it goes live! Hope you’ll check it out. (links to other conscious leadership article and blogs in it as well).

    Couldn’t find a WordPress “like” button, or would have done that too. (Never do likes to “the socials” because it would auto-force me to violate my “never share info intrusted to me” ethics – sneaky little devils).

    As the ADD Poster Girl, I had to *learn* to rein it in — as I age, I’m sometimes sorry I did so! (Some would say I didn’t learn to do so very WELL – including my readers ::grin::) This article planted seeds for me that will remind me to STOP being fearful of “the line” and simply speak my truth and ask for what I want, torpedoes be dam^ed! Coaching distinction: participation vs performance.

    A+ for this! THANKS.
    ~~~~~
    Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, CMC, SCAC, MCC
    – ADD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching co-founder –
    (blogs: ADDandSoMuchMore, ADDerWorld & ethosconsultancynz – dot com)
    “It takes a village to transform a world!”

  3. Dear Cathy, I find this very strong a blog and congratulate you with being out there and dare to share your ‘fragility’. I’d love leaders to read this and become aware of how strong one can be through sharing doubts, uncertainty and fragility! Well done. Olivier

  4. This is such an important issue! Putting yourself out there and doing something new is easier said than done. It’s crucial nonetheless if you want to improve yourself. Eventhough some people critisize you in a hurtful way or make you feel embarassed you have to get over it and try to correct the critisized behaviour.
    I really like your style and how you present your thoughts. 🙂 I hope this makes blogging a bit morw comfortable for you.

    1. Thank you to all these replies, it certainly does encourage me… to expose my own vulnerability and human fears and frailties, knowing it is shared makes it worthwhile…

  5. Thank you Cathy, what a truly great article you have posted both thought provoking and insightful. I believe we all have these moments; it is an exquisite balancing act between our journey for self awareness and our reliance on what others think of us; to be seen as ‘good enough’. To be able to consciously step into our own vulnerability is indeed a scary thing but as you so eloquently point out…this is the rich territory of personal growth. And indeed I think that courage is part of the ‘fuel’ we need to face our vulnerability as well as gentle support and encouragement. To feel safe to explore our ‘stretch zone’ to understand that we all make mistakes enables us to be less hash on ourselves when things don’t quite work out as we intended.

    Your inspirational article, has made me think again about a question I have been exploring now for a number of years. Personal growth – there would appear to be tension between the pursuit of inner wisdom and the fear of the unknown (the act of becoming vulnerable). Some people only develop this inner learner because external factors takes away our choice (through circumstances outside our control) which can to be a fearful and sometimes painful experience – “people don’t like change” whilst others actively pursue this noble quest through personal focus and a compelling need to understand themselves. As such, I find that the majority of people I work with have a ‘healthy’ unconscious resistance to personal development (whatever they espouse). Maybe because it is beyond that which is known and as such we are asking people to step into their vulnerability based on trust? So, how do we help people feel safe to take that leap of faith?….I would love to have that conversation. With thanks Cathy….more blogging please!

  6. Thanks for sharing so openly Cathy. It reminded me of Brené Brown when she stated that “authenticity is a collection of choices that we have to make every day. It’s about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest. The choice to let our true selves be seen.”

    It certainly means something different for each one of us. What I’ve learnt for example is that, putting myself “out there” is also about being able to ask for help and guidance and to be gentle with myself. As with many things we can get so used to behaviors and situations. I used to stretch myself always on the edge of the panic zone until my body clearly gave me a stop sign. Now I try to listen to myself, my inner wisdom, my intuition to decide every day anew what it means to honor my limits and to grow at the same time.

  7. Cathy, this is an outstanding article and a very humble one, to say the least. Expressing one’s vulnerability is often considered the most arguable of virtues. It takes most of us much candor to reveal this rather uncomfortable experience and feeling that we often undergo under various circumstances. Kudos to you for having stepped out of that zone and relished the after-effect! I surely have many takeaways from your blog and will strive to test myself every now and then. Cheers

  8. Thank you Cathy for your candid story. It strengthens my pursuit to be ‘out there’ as well. My fear has to do with being accepted the way I am, my core. Sometimes I think differently, act differently, creating unexpected surprises. Because to me a surprise is always nice … and is by definition unexpected. What I am learning now, having started my own business, is to align with other persons needs in organizations and ask ‘out loud’, hey, what do you think, shall we do things differently? So being explicit upfront about it. I believe that there are people who will enjoy doing things differently, see things differently and act upon that! And if they don’t, that’s just fine. It takes all my guts to grap myself together and take next steps, not holding back or go mainstream again, as expected. But for me too, I have my hiding moments. Even after I have trained many managers in having a “Learning Mindset”. So thanks for sharing yours.

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