The challenge of failure

“We learn to…color the inside of the square by scribbling outside the box…we either learn to fail or we fail to learn.” p. xvi

For this second post on Tal Ben-Shahar’s book The Pursuit of Perfect I want to continue the discussion about the uncomfortable topic of failure. What makes talking about failure challenging? I would argue it is because we frequently see failure as something that is personal, permanent and pervasive. When we make failure about the person, we lose our ability to see the impact of the situation or context. When we make failure a permanent state, we neglect to make room for change and growth. When we make failure pervasive, we generalize from a single instance and conclude that the whole is without value. When we see our failures as about us as people, as something we cannot change and something that will seep into every other aspect of our lives, the result is typically paralysis and fear.

“ [A]voiding failure…invests it with much more power than it deserves, the pain associated with the fear of failure is usually more intense than the pain following an actual failure.” p. 21

What can we do to change our relationship with failure?

“Active acceptance is about recognizing things are they are and then choosing the course of action we deem appropriate and worthy of ourselves. It is about recognizing that at every moment in our life we have a choice—to be afraid and yet to act courageously, to feel jealous and yet act benevolently, to accept being human and act with humanity.” p. 57

We can acknowledge that we cannot control the world, only our own behavior. That is, without losing our sense of accountability, we can move to a more realistic position in which our role and the situational constraints are both part of the equation. We can shake off the all-or-none mindset that tells us that one failure means failing forever more and recognize that we live in the now and can make new choices at any point. Moreover, we can court a more flexible attitude to those things that we cannot change and see them as givens with which we need to work rather than limitations that prevent us from taking any action at all.

“We need to accept that we sometimes do not and cannot know. We need to embrace uncertainty in order to feel more comfortable in its presence. Then, once we feel comfortable with our ignorance, we are better prepared to reconstruct our discomfort with the unknown into a sense of awe and wonder. It is about relearning to perceive the world—and our lives—as a miracle unfolding.” p. 222

Let’s get to that scribbling, grateful for all the awe and wonder this world has to offer.

 

Tal Ben-Shahar. (2009). The Pursuit of Perfect: How to Stop Chasing Perfection and Start Living a Richer, Happier Life. New York: McGraw Hill. Or the 2010 paperback Being Happy: You Don’t Have to Be Perfect to Lead a Richer, Happier Life.


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The Diversity Dividend by Katherine W Hirsh is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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The challenge of failure

You can choose your world

Imagine a world where positive feedback was considered entertainment at best and meaningless at worst. In this world, your job as a leader is to privilege particular ways of being (hopefully consistent with your own ways) and do the best you can to create regulations and enforce norms that promote these, and only these, approaches. If the best approach has already been found, you make people conform to this. If it is still being sought, you seek to ensure that no one is satisfied with what they are currently doing. You seek out any and all methods that allow you to compare people to an ideal standard and show them where they fall short. In this world, even perfection might not be good enough.

Do this world sound out of balance? Do you get the impression that a lot of energy is being wasted waiting for some idyllic future where all problems will be solved (or some exceedingly gloomy one where it will all cease to matter)? Do you think people are doing their best work or is more time spent trying to cover up what’s going wrong?

Now imagine a world in which there is no scarcity of good ways to be and as a leader it is your privilege to acknowledge where people are flourishing. You look to the past to find out what is already working so that you can build on this success. At the same time, you are open to new possibilities and committed to remaining flexible should the demands of your situation change. Your job is to reward effort and integrity and to make sure that unrealized potential has a chance to surface and grow. Instead of comparison, you practice compassion because the hardest ideal to live up to is simply to show up and be authentically yourself. In this world, good is truly enough.

How often do you find yourself operating as though you lived in the first of these worlds, the one where scarcity and perfectionism are driving forces? How does this mode feel? Don’t stop at your thoughts, attend to your physical and emotional reactions as well. If you can recognize the signs — for example, a sense of unease, heaviness or tension in your body; shame, guilt and fear; unhelpful ruminations about unlikely catastrophic outcomes — you can take an intentional step into the second world, the one where abundance and diversity are the driving forces. All of the energy you’ve been devoting to force the world to look the one single way you see as perfect can instead be devoted to opening yourself up to curiosity about all the other options that might be possible if you only took a moment to accept and appreciate the beautiful, imperfect state that is reality. This freedom to choose your world is the diversity dividend.

 

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The Diversity Dividend by Katherine W Hirsh is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

You can choose your world

There’s no single road to the top

One of the roadblocks to doing diversity work that I set out to explore with The Diversity Dividend is the limiting assumption of perfectionism and its companion all-or-none mindset. As part of this exploration, the book I want to showcase next in the Inspiration Shout-Outs series is The Pursuit of Perfect: How to Stop Chasing Perfection and Start Living a Richer, Happier Life by Tal Ben-Shahar.

The myth this book helps to explode is that the pursuit of perfection helps us to achieve success. In fact, perfectionism may take us away from success because it blinds us to possible options, discourages us from testing our limits and taking risks and condemns us to the belief that anything less than perfect is equivalent to failure.

“Like most people, the Perfectionist says that she wants to learn from others. But she is unwilling to pay the price of learning—admitting a shortcoming, flaw, or mistake—because her primary concern is actually to prove that she is right.”
p. 13

Furthermore, perfectionism stresses the belief that there is only one right way to success and this can trap those not on that way into hiding this fact, and their purported failures, from others.

“[In most organizations] looking good is often a stronger motivation than being good (by owning up to and learning from one’s failures).”
p. 138

Finally, when we strive to be perfect, we may give up before the job is done, perhaps even within steps from our goal, because of the fear of failure perfectionism instills.

“Failure is essential in achieving success—though it is of course not sufficient for achieving success. In other words, while failure does not guarantee success, the absence of failure will almost always guarantee the absence of success.”
p. 29

Befriend failure; make it one of your tools for success. Think of the diverse paths you would be free to follow if there were many right ways to the top.


Tal Ben-Shahar. (2009). The Pursuit of Perfect: How to Stop Chasing Perfection and Start Living a Richer, Happier Life. New York: McGraw Hill. Or the 2010 paperback Being Happy: You Don’t Have to Be Perfect to Lead a Richer, Happier Life.

Creative Commons License
The Diversity Dividend by Katherine W Hirsh is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

There’s no single road to the top