Permission to Fail

by Angela 20. March 2014 18:04

Occasionally something happens to me that I feel the need to share. OK it’s more than occasionally, if you follow me on Twitter you probably know a lot more about me than you ever wanted to. But this was particularly noteworthy. Mostly because it has reinforced something I’d always heard but never experienced myself before.  Well, I probably had but not quite in THIS way. Today, I was given permission to fail.

I’m one of those people who wants to make everyone happy, and for everyone to like me. I know, isn’t that true of everyone? But it is an especially big part of my personality, and it bleeds into my work-life in many ways, not always for the better.  I strive to focus on the “big picture” while keeping an eye on the short term goals, but I often obsess too much about all of the possible outcomes of my actions/decisions and fear something could go wrong. This is true both professionally, and personally. Seriously, I am shocked I ever settled on fixtures for the guest bathroom because “oh my goodness what if I end up hating them in 5 years and now I am locked into those towel bars FOREVER!” The bigger failure in these  types of situations, is to take the safer route, to compromise on what is really important to minimize the risk of all possible negative outcomes, and then short change yourself and/or your client. And heck, usually the worst case scenario of making a wrong choice is a little lost time, some rework, and a valuable lesson.

My point is that you can’t be so hung up on avoiding potential failures that you constantly settle for “safe” paths that may meet your immediate needs and avoid any potential issues, but that in the long term turn out to be a mediocre solution at best.  It seems so obvious in a microcosm - if you’re going to fail, “fail fast” and do better next time. Right? But often times when I’m dealing with other areas of my life, I fail to heed the advice I so often give other people every day at work. So back to my original point.

I was getting particularly anxious about an upcoming meeting. I was definitely over-thinking it, to the point where I felt almost too paralyzed to make a choice about how to handle things, for fear of failure. Somewhere deep in my brain I’d decided that if I made one bad decision, said one thing that was not absolutely perfect, that I’d let my boss down, myself down, I’d ruin everything we had worked for, and as an added bonus I’ve put a permanent blemish on the reputation of all WOMEN in IT to boot ::cue dramatic music::  I’d think I was crazy to do this to myself if so many other people that I have talked to recently didn’t struggle through the same feelings themselves.

But then it happened. I was relaying some of these fears to my boss, he listened patiently and then said to me “what’s the worst thing that can happen? We lose this deal, we learn from it, we move on, we do better next time”. I’m pretty sure I sat in stunned silence. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not actually shocked he said it. But it was like an epiphany, and I felt a little dumb for feeling like it was an epiphany.  It’s so obvious. But sometimes I need to not only be reminded of things like this, but I need to hear it out loud from someone like my boss for them to really stick.

I think giving ourselves permission to fail can be critical to our own development, personally and professionally.  So try it sometime, and be sure to give someone else permission to fail if you see them sinking into a tar pit of possibilities rather than making an educated guess and trying it out. Your coworker, your direct report, your significant other, heck even your kids…  You won’t regret it.


career | failure | personal growth | XKCD

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