So, you f*cked up at work. Like, really bad. Maybe you tanked an important job interview, or accidentally sent a NSFW email that was meant for your work BFF to the whole company. Maybe your business failed, or you got fired. Whatever the failure is, our first instinct is to crawl into a hole of self pity and only return to the real world after we’ve beaten ourselves up enough times. Not only does this method make you feel even shittier, it doesn’t prevent you from making the same failure again in the future. There has to be a better way to cope, right?
This week on Girlboss.com, we’re looking failure in the eye and making a vow to Fail Fearlessly this year—and beyond. Because always succeeding is like… really boring.
From a young age, we’re taught that failure is unacceptable and inherently bad. We learn this from our parents when we get a bad grade, our teachers when we don’t know the answer to a question, our peers when we get bullied, our sports teams when they lose a game… Failure is something that’s used to fuel success. If you ridiculed yourself enough and felt enough shame, you’d be motivated to succeed, right?
But, we haven’t always been risk-averse. Our resilience for failure is at an all-time high when we’re in diapers. If we fall while learning to walk, we shake it off and get right back up. But as we go through life, and we fail our first test or find out we didn’t get the role we wanted in the school play, we learn very quickly that wins are celebrated, not losses.
Then, when we enter high school, we’re suddenly expected to know what we want to do for the rest of our lives. There’s little tolerance for experimenting, exploring different avenues, taking risks and figuring things out along the way.
But the cultural perception of failure is shifting around the world. In Israel for example, VC and angel investors are more likely to invest in a founder who has started a company and failed previously than they are to invest in a first-time founder.
So, we’re challenging you to not only accept failure, but go the extra mile and actually celebrate it. Instead of wallowing, treat yourself to a fancy dinner with your friends, or a whole day of self-care, or like one of our experts for this story, throw yourself a literal pity party. But before you break out the balloons, champagne and confetti, read on…
Dr. Jenny Wang, a licensed psychologist, speaker and author of Permission to Come Home: Reclaiming Mental Health as Asian Americans. She is also the founder of the Instagram community @asiansformentalhealth
Jody Michael, a psychotherapist, executive coach and author of Leading Lightly: Lower Stress, Think with Clarity, and Lead with Ease
Katie Zeppieri, a two-time TEDx speaker, author, serial entrepreneur and the founder and lead publicist of The MicDrop Agency, a PR and branding agency
What are the psychological benefits of celebrating your failures?
It encourages vulnerability and connection. When you confess your failure to your close friend—or if you’re feeling brave, your followers—there’s a really special thing that happens. Your vulnerability allows the other person to be vulnerable in return. “When we are able to name our failures, share them, it actually unwraps from the shame that often is associated with failure,” says Dr. Wang. “Shame that occurs in silence and isolation often breeds, but failure when it's named can start to fade away.”
It fosters growth. If you go through life without ever failing, you’ll have a pretty stagnant (and boring) life. You’ll only ever experience success and never improve in any way… yawn. “If I do not stumble or fail, I will not know my margins of growth, and the areas I can improve. I won’t be able to leverage the mistakes and the messiness into a path towards success,” adds Dr. Wang.
It builds your tolerance for risk taking. Failure takes practice. The more you do it, the higher your tolerance is for the discomfort that comes with messing up.* It’s like a muscle that only gets stronger the more you flex—or in this case, flop. “If there's failure on the table, that means you're actually being a little risky,” says Dr. Wang. “You're saying, ‘I'm not 100 percent sure that I got this one, but I'm going to try it anyway and see what happens.’” And that’s worth celebrating.
The only group of individuals who consistently embrace failure are entrepreneurs, adds Michael, and that's what makes them so successful. Entrepreneurs are able to fail and fail fast, then pivot and learn from their mistakes in a really healthy, positive way. Zeppieri agrees. “One of the healthiest things that you can do as a person, and especially as an entrepreneur, is separate yourself from your achievements and your failures,” she says. “And that's a really, really tricky thing to do.”
It lessens the emotional blow. It’s human nature to want to get as far away from the feeling of failure as possible. You want to deflect the blame, push away the shame and go into hiding, so doing the exact opposite—celebrating your mistakes and being the center of attention—is like chicken soup for the soul. At the end of the day, failure is inevitable. “We tend to want to be good when we're beginners,” says Michael. “And that's not a reasonable expectation. The road to mastery is littered with mistakes and failures. And often, the bigger the mistake, the deeper the learning.”
It helps us separate failure from our identity. Raise your hand if you’ve called yourself “a failure” before? Most of us, right? “Failure feels like it's tied to punishment,” says Dr. Wang. “I haven't earned it enough, and therefore I don't deserve the success.” So, by celebrating a failure, it tells your brain that you don’t have to “earn” a celebration—you’re just celebrating yourself independently from the failed outcome. “We're actually saying, ‘I'm still worthy and human and beloved.’ And I'm going to behave in a way that honors that,” she adds.
Zeppieri is proof that celebrating your failures works. She threw a two-in-one party recently: it was a celebration of her business’ one-year anniversary *and* all of her business endeavors that failed in the past. “I made scrappy little handmade signs that had some cheesy quotes (like ‘started from the bottom, now we’re here’) and put them up on the wall,’” recalls Zeppieri. “It was a very intimate group of people: family and friends who had been with me through some of the hardest challenges.” They exchanged stories, wisdom and advice for Zeppieri as she entered this next phase of her entrepreneurial journey.
“Without the failures, you don't get the success, and so, you have to be brave enough to try. That's what I love about celebrating it,” she adds. “I also thought it was really interesting to see how the people who were invited started to consider their own failures or shortcomings. And instead of seeing it as an end, seeing it as a new beginning.”
*It’s also important to note that the consequences of a work failure affect women, people of color and other marginalized folks differently, explains Dr. Wang. If a white, cisgender, heterosexual, non-disabled man completely tanked in a job interview, he might get a second chance—but a Black trans woman might not get the same amount of grace. The consequences for her failure will likely be much greater.
What are the best ways to celebrate a work f*ck up?
There is no one “right” way, according to Dr. Wang. It’s whatever you need to do to soothe your nervous system. So, for some, that could be an extroverted activity like throwing a pity party or going out to dinner with friends. But for others, that might be too overwhelming. Celebrating a failure can also look like taking a long hot bath then slathering yourself in a luxurious lotion, or treating yourself to that pair of shoes you’ve been lusting after, or even having a quiet night in with your partner, trusted family member or close friend, suggests Dr. Wang. “You can also honor your failure by allowing yourself to feel the grief that comes with the loss. And honoring those emotions can also soothe the nervous system too.”
Michael also suggests sharing your failure with others. Bring it up in a meeting with your team and take accountability. It sounds scary but it creates a safe, open environment for learning in the workplace. Another idea? Creating a ritual every Friday to evaluate your week and write down one learning you had. This will actively train your brain to look proactively for errors and failures and to not be afraid of them, according to Michael. “This is a powerful tool for growing your self awareness.”
There’s a saying that “what gets celebrated, gets repeated.” Does this also ring true for celebrating failure?
Short answer? No. If you celebrate being laid off, it doesn’t mean it’s going to happen again. Something that you might repeat? The intention behind the celebration, says Dr. Wang. “Because if you're celebrating as a form of avoidance, dissociation and disconnection from the failure, you might not internalize what that failure is actually gifting you.” Pay attention to the reasons why you failed, what resources and skills you were lacking and what you can do differently next time. (Pssst… Our Failure Coping Questionnaire has even more prompts to help you out.)
Any advice for shifting your mindset to be more accepting of failure?
In Michael’s book Leading Lightly: Lower Stress, Think with Clarity, and Lead with Ease, she outlines exactly what to do after a failure happens, which she created after 20 years of research amongst high-level executives. And it can be broken down into an easy-to-remember mnemonic device:
Assess your mood (are you feeling ashamed? Humiliated? Embarrassed? What are the thoughts you’re having that are making you feel the way you do?)
Breathe (not just any breath—a deep one from the diaphragm where you breathe in, hold for six counts and slowly breathe out. This will help you get out of your mind and into your body.)
Choose to be accountable for your thoughts, mood and behavior (don't blame, don't complain, and don't focus on external events. Own up to your emotional state and the situation.)
Spot what your current lens is (what is your POV that’s causing you distress? “I’m not good enough,” “I’m not smart enough,” “It’s not fair?”)
Explore other lenses (try on some new viewpoints. “How else can I look at this?” Seek to understand what you might be missing or not seeing.)
Elect a new lens (this will help you reframe your failure to see it as a development opportunity. What do you need to know or do or overcome to be successful in the future?))
Plus, Zeppieri recommends embracing the ideas of change, and rejecting the notion that you’re a fixed person, meaning your habits, likes, dislikes and identity will always stay the same. “I'm more than what I do and every new risk that I take gives me a chance to grow,” she recommends telling yourself. “The best way to get comfortable with failure is to put yourself out there more. Envision yourself like clay that's being molded.”
Another thing that will help you reframe failure? Remember that failure itself is neutral—it’s a construct, and every individual has created their own meaning of what failure is, says Michael. “Failure is just part of life, it's inevitable. Things don't go according to plan.” But you can decide how you let failure affect—and define—you. You can let it completely destroy your self-esteem, or you can use it to your advantage. “Problems are always opportunities,” adds Michael.