How to Reframe Your Concept of Failure

When do we start experiencing the fear of failure?

Most people experience the fear of failure at least once in their life.

When I taught preschool swimming classes through the YMCA, I found 3 and 4-year-olds who were already on the path to worrying about failing. They framed that fear with the idea that they couldn’t do something. There was at least one preschooler in each session who insisted that they couldn’t hold the kickboard and kick the full length of the pool because of the deep end. To move to the next swim level, however, they needed to show competence by kicking the full length of the pool.

In school, the fear of failure is magnified by the necessity to pass our courses. In high school, failure to pass a course meant that you had to make room for that course in next year’s schedule and more than likely be with students at least a year younger than you. In high school, failure also meant shelling out more money or academic probation.

Moving into the workforce, failure to make an impression during an interview meant not getting hired. Failure to do the job successfully, meant the possibility of being written up or even fired.

How can you reframe failure?

Reframe #1: “Try – try again.”

My first look into failure’s eyes was my freshman year in high school. I was a freshman in a geometry class with a teacher who disliked freshmen.

Had I failed before? Sure I had, but I don’t remember it bothering me because it was more about the sports skills I didn’t have than the coursework I needed to pass to graduate.

Enter my mother’s philosophy: “If at first you don’t succeed, try – try again.” She was more upset that the teacher was not willing to work with me and help me understand geometry than she was with me for getting each progress report indicating that I was failing geometry.

“Try – try again” followed me at every turn. It has kept me practicing and playing piano and violin. It has kept me writing. It found me getting married a second time after I divorced my high school sweetheart.

I still use Mom’s philosophy. I have started fresh when a diet or exercise plan has not gone as planned.

Reframe #2: Change your words.

When I was teaching those preschoolers to swim, I got in front of them and held onto the kickboard. It usually wasn’t until they saw the ladder half-way down the pool that they would start with the “I can’t” chant. I had them look me in the eyes and ask them if they knew the story of “The Little Engine That Could.” If they didn’t, I’d shorten the story – sometimes at the beginning of the swimming class if I knew I was going to hear “I can’t.” Then I would ask each swimmer to start saying, “I think I can. I think I can.” as they swam the length of the pool.

You see, we never know if we can if we are always letting fear get in the way and saying “I can’t.” without even trying.

Reframe #3: Use an acronym.

I so wish I had found this early in my teaching career. Take each letter of the word fail and assign a word to it that will help reframe your worries about failure.

  • F=First
  • A=attempt
  • I=in
  • L=learning.

Failure is just your first attempt in learning.

Reframe #4: Allow yourself to be imperfect.

Expecting perfection out of yourself can lead to personal failure.

Each time I have failed, I have just failed my own personal expectations. The project might not have been perfect, or the project might not have been completed on my time schedule, or the project wasn’t completed at all. Sometimes it is the fear of one or all of these things that stops me from attempting a project. Those “what ifs?”

  • “What if it isn’t perfect?”
  • “What if it isn’t completed on time?”
  • “What if I need help?”
  • “What will someone say if I ask for help?”
  • “What if I don’t complete the project?”

What I have learned over the years is that I need to let go of these “what ifs” and perfection. I am human, and I will encounter speed bumps and detours on my life’s path. Sometimes those speed bumps and detours are self-inflicted, but other times they come from external sources.

I am beginning to release myself from my “what ifs” and perfection. If I can’t complete a project to perfection, rather than avoid the project, I am learning to acknowledge that my job might have flaws or imperfections, or that I might need to ask for help.

Too many times we see imperfection as failure rather than the fact that we are just learning something new.

I think Henry Ford says it the best:

How about you?

Do you shy away from learning something new because you might suck at it? Or maybe that others will laugh at you? Remember, they were once beginners too. Instead, see failure as an opportunity to begin again.

What can you begin again today more intelligently? In a better frame of mind? With the knowledge of your first start or your thirtieth start?

  • Is it a diet or exercise plan?
  • Is it a project you abandoned?
  • Is it moving forward after a breakup or loss?

Think of what your beginnings have taught you. Be brave – start again instead of being scared to fail once again.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas about failure and beginning again.

Please take a moment to share your thoughts and ideas in the comments below.

Until next time . . .

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