What Failure Taught Me About Balance (a guest post from Paula Jenkins)
Today, I’m so pleased to present this guest post from my dear friend and collaborator, Paula Jenkins, a Joyful Living Coach and podcaster.
A big fear that stops many of us, including my clients, is a fear of failing. This kind fear is tricky and sneaky, and it often masks itself as something else, but it lies below the surface. If you’ve done any inner critic work, you may notice that the the inner critic likes to fling this fear around with reckless abandon. It gets your attention, it can stop you in your tracks, and it can change the course of your decisions.
As a project manager for 17 years, one of the hardest lessons I had to learn was to let people (including myself) “fail.”
Inevitably, as projects progressed, things would slip, or, we’d find out something was not truly possible (creative ideas have limitations in website builds), or people would have other things come up in their lives. At first, it was very hard for me to let go of my perceived control around deadlines and meeting stated requirements.
It was hard for me to see that anything else could be as important as getting something done “right.”
But, over time, and over a series of failures ranging from small to epic (best shared over drinks. I like scotch.), it became clear that even with my best intentions and in throwing every tool I knew at a project, failure was still a very real possibility.
The other hard and real truth I came to realize around failure was that I was tying the success of a project to my own perceived self-worth.
I wasn’t extending grace or flexibility to myself because I simply could not deal with the idea that I didn’t measure up, or worse (here’s where my inner critic was screaming at me), that I would become clear to everyone that I didn’t deserve to be on the team, and I’d be asked to leave.
What were the other options? I could keep fighting my reality and keep forcing a fit around something that was causing me pain.
Or, I could accept that people fail, I fail, and that things go on. And, in fact, people learn and grow and change when they fail, in ways that would never happen if I continued to try to control everything about every project I was on.
It was right around this same time that I started taking improv classes, which truly changed how I saw failure.
One of my favorite lessons around “failure” has to do with an improv troupe I worked with for awhile. Improv, while hilarious, is also deeply vulnerable. You get up in front of people and act out scenes from nothing, no script, no direction, no anything, except what you have in your head.
It’s a practice of total trust; trusting in your troupe, and trusting yourself. Improv folks don’t set out to be funny, per se, but they set out to be authentic.
We learned quickly that if you TRY to be funny, you won’t be, but if you speak from the heart and say whatever is on the tip of your tongue, the results are often hysterical. No one else can think the way you do, or make the connections you do.
When we worked together as a troupe getting ready for a show, we had a practice. If someone said something that sounded absurd, or simply wasn’t funny, or strangely awkward, they put their hands up in the air, took an over-exaggerated bow and yelled “I failed!!” Then the troupe would applaud, the weirdness would be over, and everyone moved on.
It worked because we all failed, all the time.
We acknowledged the weirdness, and let it go. The energy always changed after joyful laughter and we were ready to be back in the zone, together.
With this lesson under my belt, I started practicing it elsewhere in my life. I let people fail. And I let myself fail. I refrained from taking a bow at work. Instead, I started acknowledging when things didn’t work, and thanked people for trying new things. I built more time into timelines. I spoke in different ways about what “completing” a task looked like.
Accepting, and then inviting, failure led to gentleness and grace with teams and with myself.
It created more rapport, more fun, more joy in the teams because it quietly stated that we were not fighting failure, but we were incorporating it, and making better projects because we made improvements based on our learnings. I invite you to start playing with how you can allow failure in your life. How you can welcome it in and embrace it? See what starts to change.
If you’re wanting to play with the ideas of failure, here are a few thoughts on where to start.
Play with the idea of “failure” as an illusion.
If you’re worried you’ll fail at a task, try to define failure around any given situation. If it’s around changing careers, you might fear that no one will respond to your resume. Or you might be afraid you’ll dislike the new job as much as you do the current one.
Re-define failure again.
Once you have your definition in hand, ask yourself if that’s truly failing. If no one responds to your resume, there’s nothing lost. If you dislike the new job, you’ve still gotten experience interviewing and your resume is polished up and ready to go, again.
Make it play-focused.
Children experiment with new things all the time with no fear of “failing” because it’s play. The building they make from blocks can’t support the weight of a 12th story? They try again. The cardboard fort they build in the backyard gets rained on overnight and falls apart? They get out the markers!
Because now it’s a cave and they start making “caveman” drawing on the inside. The real genius of this point of view is that it builds change into the process. It recognizes that in trying and building in multiple iterations, innovation happens.
Failure is a feedback loop.
If that’s too fanciful for you, try thinking of “failure” as nothing more than feedback from the universe. Maybe something didn’t work the first time, but there was information on how to improve the idea.
Thank you so much for your wisdom, Paula! I am so honored to be your friend to get to teach by your side. ~ Christy
Paula Jenkins is a Joyful Living Coach and podcaster focused on transforming lives. From working one on one with coaching clients, to writing, and hosting a weekly podcast, she is dedicated to bringing more joy into the world.
Her purpose and her work all dance with the transformative nature of joy, even when we are faced with hard times and difficult questions. She is motivated by the words of Henri Nouwen: “Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day.”
She makes her online home at www.jumpstartyourjoy.com