Lessons from the Failure Lab

The room is filling on a Saturday night in Sydney. It’s an old theatre with seats from many decades past, that are covered in old vinyl and snap up quickly as soon as you begin getting up. The audience is diverse – from late teens to seniors – all ready to hear about a topic that affects us at every stage of life – failure.

The event is the “Failure Lab“, an event being held across the world with an aim to “crush the social stigma of failure”. The Sydney event was part of the 2016 VIVID Sydney Festival.

Here’s how the organisers describe it:

FAILURE:LAB is a raw and intimate evening showcasing personal stories of failure. With a refreshing environment of openness, it helps pave the way for change by crushing the isolation and stigma around failure. Failure then takes its rightful place as the crucial first step to the next big thing. Embrace it, learn from it, build on it.

I was interested in this event since fear of failure causes many people stress, anxiety and self confidence issues and bouncing back from failure presents similar challenges.

And we often don’t talk about it.

Our culture values success and achievement and makes heroes of people who do extraordinary things. But we generally don’t talk about people who tried and failed. There’s often a stigma about failure.

Yet, as we all know, failure happens throughout our lives. It’s just the type, context, and consequences that change – from falling over as a toddler, to mistakes in our job or career, through to making mistakes in old age, failure is something we experience in every stage of life.

Here are some of the lessons I drew from the stories shared in the Failure Lab…

Lesson #1: Failure is universal. On this night, the themes and threads that came though each of the stories were common, if not universal…

–  Hopes dashed
–  Not noticing the obvious/blind spots
–  Ignoring a situation until it hits you in the face
–  Not being able to achieve what you know is possible because people don’t support you
–  Jumping into a situation without adequate preparation

I can relate to every one of these themes and certainly felt more connected to our common humanity and less alone in my failures as a result. Can you relate to these too? The good news is that we don’t need to feel alone, different or inferior for having failed.

Lesson #2: There’s power in talking about our failures. It makes failure feel more normal. More part of the process. More of the rule than the exception. More okay.

Lesson #3: When we talk about our failures, there’s a shared benefit. We benefit from authentically sharing who we are and what we’ve experienced. The listeners benefit from hearing experiences they can relate to, sympathise with, or learn from.

The more we talk about our failure experiences – not as a pity party but with the intention of embracing them, learning from them, and using them to help us move forward –  the less stigma there will be about failure.

Action Steps

Recognising that fear of failure and recovering from failure both cause stress and anxiety, here are 4 positive ways to help you prevent failure and manage it well when it does happen…

1.    Do the boring work to reduce the risk of failure
Most of us want to shortcut to success at some point or another but this can increase our risk of failure. The more you do the groundwork, the research, and the preparation to ensure what you’re doing is based on a solid foundation, the better your chances of success. No great insights here… just the unexciting truth.

2.    When failure does happen, be kind to yourself.
Self compassion has been shown to be a crucial part of the ability to bounce back from hard times. Self compassion involves being gentle with yourself, not berating or blaming yourself for making a mistake, recognising that to err is human, and keeping a bigger picture perspective.

3.    Adopt a learning mindset.
This mindset, also known as a growth mindset, has been shown to help with wellbeing, confidence, learning, and success. It’s a way of moving forward so you don’t get stuck in blaming yourself and others or give up on your hopes and dreams. Here’s an example: “This situation has happened and I can’t change it. What can I learn from it? What can I do differently next time? How can I use this situation to help me in the future?”

4.    Share your experience with others, authentically and constructively, with the intention of helping both yourself and those listening to you to embrace failure, learn from it, and use it to move forward.

The way we view and experience failure has a direct impact on our wellbeing and resilience to stress and challenges. The more we can use our failure experiences in positive ways, the more positive benefits we can gain from a negative experience.

What failure experiences could you share with other people  – that would benefit you by telling your story and your listeners by hearing your story?

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