How to fail

This is honestly just a love letter to myself. It’s a reminder that you don’t have to be perfect.

What’s prompted me to write this is that I recently failed at something, and it just highlighted to me how very bad I am at failing. It’s one of those things that are in all the self-help and career advice books. Be good at failing and learn from your mistakes.

But personally, I’ve always hated it. I’ve always hated admitting that I stuffed something up or got something wrong. I have this desire to have everyone think of me as reliable and perfect, when truly that’s something which is achievable for no human being.

The fear of failure

So how can you ‘fail’ at something without admonishing yourself and going over and over the mistake in your mind? I’m still trying to figure it out – but for me I’m starting with at least admitting to them.

My latest failure was on an exam. For work purposes I need to complete a particular qualification. I took the training and then sat the exam. If you haven’t figured it out yet, I failed that exam.

In school I was probably what the kids call “a teacher’s pet”. I always did well in school and passed most of my exams with flying colours. This is not me trying to brag, just a comment on my attitude particularly to things like tests. I pass – I don’t fail.

Failing an exam for me was an awful feeling. A lot of my identity and self-worth comes from being smart and typically being effective at things like standardised tests. 

In that moment when I completed the online test and saw the world ‘FAIL’ flash on screen, I froze. In my head, I thought ‘You’re a failure’. I think the reason people are scared of failing is because they are scared that it makes them a failure. You can see my immediate reaction was exactly that. 

Stop making excuses

My other instinct was to make excuses to try and minimise it. I complained about how the training provided was lacklustre. And I’m not going to lie, the first draft of this post included me talking about that fact – that I thought the provider needed to work on their training. But I’ve removed all that because ultimately, I’m the one that chose to sit that test. Bad training or not, it was my call that I was ready to try and pass. It turns out I wasn’t.

How do we see failures and mistakes as learning opportunities? How do we halt that negative self-talk?

Admit it, you made a mistake

For me, telling people about failing my exam actually really helped. People appreciate honesty and vulnerability. When I told my friends at work that I had failed the test, they were really supportive and told me to study up and try again!

I can’t stress how difficult it was for me to get on a team call with my peers and admit that I had failed the exam – particularly because I knew there were other people on the call who had passed it. I made a point of bringing it up, because I know I need to get better at this. 

I should also say that I know in the scheme of things, failing a single exam is not a big deal. I probably built it up in my head to be a much bigger deal than it was. My colleagues helped me put that into context so it wasn’t the world-ender I thought it was.

It wasn’t as embarrassing as I thought it would be. One of my colleagues also admitted that they had had trouble with the course in the past and referred me to a new training program.

Fail so you can become more resilient – not just to learn.

The biggest danger I think with making mistakes is not that you won’t learn something from it. It’s that you will give up. It would be easy for me to say that I’m never going to sit that exam again. To assume that it’s not in my skill set and I should just stop trying.

In this case, I’m going to try again for two reasons. One, because I have to for work! Two, because I don’t want to give up just because it got harder. I’ll let you all know how I go.

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