Last week I wrote that many of us have an involved relationship with expertise. The same feels true of failure.
I was raised in an era when failure was to be avoided or hidden. Failure of not getting it right (“get it right or go home;” “get it right the first time or don’t do it at all”). When speed and efficiency were mechanically imprinted to the collective psyche, you get such belief systems. Failure often came with punishment, reprimands. Or reassignments. Or getting fired. There’s just loads of fear in all of that. And no, I was not raised in a military family. My family was fortunately, kind, patient, and able to laugh at such orientations — at least at home.
These days, there is a much different orientation to the flavors associated with failure. How wonderful that experimenting and prototyping are norms. “Failing fast and often” is a value to support continuous learning. Many people and organizations have developed cultures that support fantastic trial and error, in which there will of course be failures. Stuff that doesn’t work. Stuff that doesn’t work like we thought it would. But, failure has been reworked significantly to welcome learning — in the best of environments.
I’ve known some people (including myself) for whom the psychology of failure is still living in an old era, trying to catch up to the accepted strategies of the day — innovation and creativity as life blood of organizational and human evolution. In the depth of that lag, I’ve heard the phrase, “failure as a human being.” It’s one of those expressions that we all know is absurd, but none the less, the feeling of it can be quite prevalent.
This morning while sitting briefly in my bedroom, I watched my dog, my now pushing 14 lab / retriever mix staring out the window. We humans with our ability to abstract and project, come up with statements about failure. I was imagining how it would sound if dogs were to state to each other, “you are a failure as a dog.” Outside of a Disney movie script, I doubt it. Absurd, right. A dog is a dog. With foibles. With satisfying moments of fetch. With challenging moments of barfing or pooping on the carpet. A dog is a dog. “Failure as a dog” is like telling a cucumber it has failed as a cucumber. I laughed when I thought this.
I don’t know if dogs need encouragement to not think that way. I’m going to let myself be simple and say no for the moment. But humans, we do think this way at times. We do need encouragement to free ourselves from some absurdities. Though there are many kinds of humans, the extremity of the statement, “failure as a human” is just too harsh. We have our satisfying moments of preparing a good meal. We have our challenging moments of not taking out the trash that stinks up the place. But it’s all part of the package that is being human.
Here’s to kindness with ourselves and with each other, reorienting ourselves in the small and big scales of learning, failing, experimenting, daring to try some difference, and daring to welcome all of what shows up.