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Striving for Failure - How To De-Shame and Reclaim What It Means To Fail

Becca Clegg

I’ve been failing a lot lately. 

There have been multiple typos in things I have posted on social media.  I made an ass out of myself while talking with a colleague whose name I forgot.  Oh, and the writer’s block has been off the charts! (Just sitting here trying to write this blasted article has been an all morning ordeal.)

Here’s the thing… this is just evidence that things are working in my life.  I’m 100% serious when I tell you this.  Although I no longer ruminate over my failings, just now, when I sat and searched for evidence of failure, I felt good about it.

The fact that I am failing is evidence to me that I am out there living my life on purpose.  Trust me, this was not always the case.

For much of my life, I waited only until I knew things were perfect, or that I would present as perfect, before I would go for it, or let the world see who I was.  Needless to say, in order to do this, I missed a lot of opportunities; played small when I knew deep down I was far more capable; and silenced my voice when I always knew I had something to say.

I can still remember my “A-ha” moment, when this started to shift for me, a moment I won’t easily forget.

I went to a conference a while back and Sara Blakely, the CEO and founder of Spanx, was in the audience.  She was pulled up on stage and asked to talk for a minute, and the story she told has stuck with me ever since.

She told the audience that when growing up, her parents had a ritual at dinnertime where she and her brother would report their day’s events.  Part of this was sharing all the things they had done in which they had failed. 

The interesting thing was, talking about their failure was something they were excited to do. They saw it as a game, and they would even try to “one up” each other to see who done better at failure that day.

She and her brother would take pride in sharing their failures in gym class, with their schoolwork, and with friends.  With joy, they would report their failure, and in turn would receive beaming smiles of pride from their parents, who would validate them and cheer them on, encouraging them to continue on and fail some more.

Failure was exciting.  It was fun. Her parents had managed to make failure something that felt like success.

Her parents had taught them at an early age that failing was something that was, in a word, awesome.  It meant that they were trying, because the only way you can fail at something is to first try something new.  They were encouraged to always, no matter what, try things.  Failure was just accepted as a natural part of this process as an indicator that they were out there trying new things.  No guilt, no shame, no personalization.  Failure was an indicator of success; merely a sign of their amazing attempts at living on purpose.

I remember sitting in the audience being blown away by this story.  It was one of those lump-in-throat-water-in-eyes moments.  It was so simple, yet so unbelievably brilliant.  Her parents had managed to teach them their own meaning of failure, and stripped it of all the shame and blame that so many of us learned to associate with the word.

I could see the image of two little kids beaming with pride while talking about failure and it gave me goose bumps.  I remember thinking, “Oh my god, it is really that simple.  It is possible to reclaim the way we look at things.”

Sarah went on to explain that when she became inspired to empty her bank account and support her dream of making pantyhose with the feet cut out of them a real business venture (which she shared even she thought might be a little crazy), she never worried about failing.  Had she feared failure, she never would have followed a dream that so many people told her was insane.

We all know the ending of this story.  And if you don’t I can sum it up in one sentence.  Sarah has taken Spanx from a one-product wonder sold out of her Atlanta apartment, to a billion-dollar powerhouse with just under $250 million in annual revenue and net profit margins estimated at 20%.

I think about this story a lot.  Every time I fear failure (and yes, that is still quite often - like most of us, I too was indoctrinated to fear failure), I think about those little kids sitting around the kitchen table laughing and feeling excited to report their failings. 

I have consciously and deliberately decided to reclaim my own meaning of the word failure, and lay this out before me every time I tip-toe out of my comfort zone.

Common things I say to myself as reminders are:

“If you aren’t failing, you aren’t trying.”

“A day without failure is a day of hiding out.”

And my favorite - the simple, yet, joyfully stated…

“I’m a total failure.” (Insert big smiles, high fives and “woot-woot” noises.)

I am thankful beyond measure for being in the right place at the right time to hear that story that day.  It shifted something inside of me that has allowed me to come so far beyond where I was on the day of that conference. 

I’ve always heard that at the end of life, people don’t regret the things they have done, but rather, the things they never dared to do.  I don’t want to be one of those people.

This year I am going to fail more than I have in a long time.  Of course, it’s scary, but it is also invigorating.  There is a saying that reads, “Don’t die with your music still inside of you.”  By reframing the meaning of the word “failure,” I know one thing for certain: that my music is playing.  If failure is part of this process, then yes, I’ll gladly take some more.