How I Embraced Failure and Turned It Into a Learning Opportunity

 Photo credit: Maisoue Yang | www.pixelpluie.com

Photo credit: Maisoue Yang | www.pixelpluie.com

 

I want to talk about the F word. Not that F word. The other F word. Failure.

A few weeks ago I got a weird email. It said one of my domains had been hacked and was being used for a phishing scam. My reaction was, “I’ll deal with it this weekend when I have time.” Then the next day, my website went down. When I typed in my URL, instead of my homepage, I saw a message saying I needed to contact the host to find out what happened. There was an 800 number and it was 10:00 PM, I was in my PJs, Alex was already sleeping, but I called anyway. I was in the middle of a panic. The pre-recorded operator came on and put me on hold for the “next available agent”. No one picked up--of course--because it was 10:00 PM.

My heart sunk. People are going to visit my page and see that my site is down, I thought. I’m going to look like a total failure.  

One of my biggest fears is failing. Failing at my job, failing at being a daughter, failing at being a wife. Failing at life. I don't know where this fear of failure comes from, but I'm pretty sure it has something to do with my struggle with perfectionism. There is no room for failure in a perfectionist's life.

So you can imagine how I felt when my website went down.  

My perfect plan for a perfect blog was ruined. For three days I walked around with a dark cloud over me, raindrops the size of quarters splashing on my head. I wanted to quit. I wanted to go back to doing easy things. Maybe get a Tumblr account again so I didn’t have to be responsible for a whole website. Leave all this website building stuff to the pros. I was obviously not meant to do this.  

Then Alex said, “This is just another challenge, babe. You can’t give up so easily.”

He was right, of course. As an academic advisor, I talked about turning failure around all the time. So I couldn’t just talk the talk but not walk it. I had to show my students that this one failure was just the universe testing me, and in our lives there were going to be many failures to remind us that we were not done with living. That, in fact, living was about overcoming challenges and learning from them. Just as Maya Angelou said, “You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.”

Failure can be a big blow to your confidence. It was--and is--to mine. When my site went down, I was almost ready to give up. Instead, I spent the next few weeks outrunning the dark rain cloud and searching for the sun. I read articles about phishing scams, forum conversations about cleaning websites that had viruses, and help pages about how to deal with this kind of ordeal. Then I rebuilt my website. A few days ago, I re-launched it using a different, but safer, hosting platform. Here are the steps I took to embrace this moment of failure and turn it into a moment of learning.

 

Step #1. Let my emotions take their course

Negative emotions are no fun to have around. They’re like that annoying wisp of hair that keeps tickling your cheek or that scab that’s just begging you to pick at it (I know, disgusting, Pa). But the truth is, you’re gonna feel what you’re gonna feel and there’s really nothing to do about it but to let it run its course. You can’t avoid negative emotions all the time, and it’s normal to have these emotions. So take a walk or binge your favorite TV show or go out with friends. I pretty much just avoided the issue for a week while I let my emotions go wild.  

 

Step #2. Forgive myself

I mean, c’mon. Who else out there is really bad at forgiving yourself? Put both your hands up and just own it. I am horrible at this. I’ve gotten better over the last few years, but I sometimes relapse. I have these highly unrealistic expectations of myself and then I get really mad when I don’t meet them.

When my site went down, there was a lot of negative self-talk going on. Why didn’t you protect the site better? You were over-confident. You were lazy. You should’ve followed your gut. See, you weren’t meant to do this whole blogging thing after all. Told ya so.

One thing that helped was being aware of this self-talk. Brene Brown suggests commenting on the action you took or the decision you made in error instead of your inherent characteristic. In other words, the thing that happened was bad, but you aren’t bad because of the thing that happened. My website went down because I made the decision not to protect it, but that didn’t make me a failure.  

Maya Angelou once said, “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.” These words came in handy as I rebuilt my website.  

 

Step #3. Change my perspective

It’s not failure, it’s experience. I’ve said this so many times to students I’ve advised and mentored. When it came time to take my own advice, though, it wasn’t so easy. That’s why it’s Step 3 and not Step 1.

I believe we have more control over our reality than we think. By shifting our perspectives and beliefs, we can change the way we see our world. It first starts in our mind with a decision. When I decided I had failed, I saw the the world from a failing perspective. That’s a negative perspective, and it manifested in the physical world by turning my mood sour. My sour mood affected all aspects of my days. Once I shifted my perspective and decided that this wasn’t a failure but a learning opportunity, I manifested this change in the physical world, too. I became more optimistic. And, most importantly, I was able to move beyond what happened.

 

Step #4. Reflect on what happened

Moving beyond failure meant taking a moment or two to reflect on what happened, how it happened, why it happened and what I could’ve done to prevent it from happening. In the thick of our emotions, we can easily forget to focus on the problem because the results that came with the “failure” are so bright and loud. In terms of my website, making sure I reflected on what happened and owned my part in it helped bring clarity to the problem. It also helped me get to the next step.

 

Step #5. Make an action plan 

I couldn’t stay in limbo forever. I couldn’t go without a website if I wanted to keep blogging, so I put an action plan together. To build my action plan, I gave myself a list of tasks to do and enough time to get them done.

  1. Figure out what all my options were.

  2. Decide, at that point and time, what the best option was for me.

  3. Envision how I wanted things to look like when I completed my action plan.

  4. Clearly design the steps I needed to take in order to get to #3.

  5. Create forward momentum by taking the first step outlined in #4.

  6. Keep going until I reached the vision in #3. 

 

Failure is a bad word. I think we can all agree on that without much resistance. It’s almost as bad as the other F word, and I’m beginning to think it’s because of the way we were all raised to view it. Teachers have graded our efforts since we were five years old. A is good and F is bad. It’s as easy as that, and as children we learned really quickly that we didn’t want to be associated with F.

I’ve spent the last few years trying to reverse the way I see “failure” or things that don’t go the way I want them to. Because that’s pretty much what failure is: things that don’t go the way we want them to. But just because things don’t go the way we want them to, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re bad. And it definitely doesn’t mean that those things are worthless. Where there is failure, there is opportunity to learn and grow. Where there is failure, there will also be great success.  

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