Fear of failure - does it shut us down or drive us?

Perhaps fear of failure starts at school where the words ‘failure’ and ‘fail’ are scary. They are represented by teachers and parents as something definitely undesirable. I was a bright kid in a small primary school in the UK, so I didn’t come into contact with those words until, at age 11, I went to grammar school, where I was among lots of other bright kids in a much larger school with regular tests and exams.

Used to being near the top of a small class, I found myself struggling. Tests and examinations became opportunities to fail. “What did you get?” was a common question as results were handed out. Failures made me feel inadequate and less worthy. I didn’t always meet my own expectations let alone the expectations of teachers, friends and family.

These failures at school, while uncomfortable, didn’t frighten me or shut me down. I think I just redefined my future. I decided on exploration as my next step rather than university and a specific career. I might have experienced failure academically, but I wasn’t going to fail at work or at life.  I’d be successful if I applied myself, stayed open to new experiences, met new people, travelled to new places, set and met my own goals and lived the life I chose. My inevitable failures would be temporary and be learning experiences.

These beliefs drove me. With every move, every new opportunity, every compliment, I gained confidence. I even tried academia again ... and succeeded.

But situations where the possibility of failure disables me and makes me vulnerable are still there. One of those is giving ‘expert’ presentations. Standing on a platform, being an expert on something, giving advice from a podium gives me serious imposter anxiety. I don’t like pontificating. I don’t like talking ‘at’ people. I feel vulnerable in a way I never do when in conversation with others where I love to listen and engage. I don’t think I’m alone in this.

No-one enjoys failure. No-one enjoys failing. However, working in the complex space, in uncertainty, just trying something is a useful strategy ... and whether our experiment or trial succeeds or fails, we will learn. Failure is just a detour not a dead end.


Failing my way to expert status

It's official. I'm now an expert! How do I know? I've just been appointed to an "expert panel" so it must be true. Over the next six months or so I will be working with some eminent scientists on some challenging water quality issues in coastal lakes.

It's great to be an expert, or at least I feel it should be, but I'm learning that it comes with its own challenges. What I have quickly recognised is that while part of me is pleased with the label, another part of me is going "oh no, what if I'm not expert enough? What if I get it wrong? What if I make a mistake?" In other words, now I'm an expert, the fear of failure is all the greater.

I've been pondering over the weekend and have decided on three little strategies to help me confront failure and cope with the inner doubter. Of course, they may not be very helpful, I wonder if they're wrong....? Oh no what if they don't work!!

...Ahem. Anyway, here is my plan:

  1. I'm going to keep in mind that on the complex issues we'll be dealing with as an expert panel, there is never a single right answer. Yet I know that stakeholders, and perhaps my fellow panellists, will at times be looking to me for 'the answer', and the urge to meet their expectations will be incredibly strong. But I will try to resist and instead invite them into our shared uncertainty, rather than fall into the expert trap.
  2. I'm going to listen to my own language. Specifically I want to hear myself say "I don't know" as often as I provide an 'expert' answer. This can be hard to do, but I take comfort in my belief that expertise surely resides in knowing the limits to our knowledge?
  3. I will seek to acknowledge the expertise of my fellow panellists, while avoiding putting them in the same expert trap. After all, I'm as comforted as the next person by the 'right' answers of specialists, so when I'm feeling uncertain I'll be just as prone to seek refuge in their expertise, and they will be just as likely to feel pressure to be seen to have an answer for me.

So these three strategies are my way of managing my own fear of failure. If you have experienced something similar, perhaps you could share the ways in which you have been expert in a complex world in which 'failure' is unavoidable.


A different sort of 'iso' project

This week we welcome our first ever guest blogger in Alice Henchion who is our fabulous marketing champion at Twyfords. Alice reflects on her struggle with achieving 'success' in a Covid world. We hope you enjoy this blog as much as we did.

Inspired by Instagram, I recently started a 750 piece puzzle hoping that it would develop into a wholesome family project. Not discouraged when my older kids and husband didn’t want to take part, I got cracking on the first grown-up puzzle I’ve attempted in over 25 years. The thing is, I live in a small house with 3 kids and a husband, and there’s very little space for a permanent puzzle to live. In between snatches of time sorting and placing pieces, I stored the puzzle on a board high up on some shelves, resting on storage boxes. Of course, I neglected to tell my husband all this and when he decided to move storage boxes, the partially made puzzle all came crashing down... along with the opportunity for a cosy family instagram shot, proving that we are thriving in Covid-19 isolation. 

The fact is we are not thriving in isolation… we are limping by.

I’d love to have mastered the baking of sourdough, built a chicken coop, planted a veggie patch or even just cleaned out my kitchen pantry during this ‘down’ time. But I haven’t. Because at my place there is no down time. I’m working, the kids are at home, and my husband is homeschooling. Life has never been more hectic. Our house has never been so messy. Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty of joy there too and I am so grateful for my beautiful family, but I can’t help feeling like I’m failing at isolation because I’m not getting ‘stuff’ done.

It took my mum to remind me, amidst a panicked phone call about an isolation birthday for my daughter, that I am allowed to take things off my plate. She pointed out that I don’t have to do everything, that delegating is an option and that the world won’t stop turning if I don’t do certain tasks today.

Since that chat I have tried to be more aware of escalating emotions and feeling overwhelmed.

I’ve tried to sit comfortably in our chaos and not worry about being uber productive. I have wrestled with guilt that our kids are having more screen time than I would like. 

I have tried painfully hard to not interfere with the way my husband is home-schooling our three kids. He’s doing it his way, which is perfectly fine… it’s just not how I would do it.

And that’s okay.

So I guess my isolation project has been learning to be okay with not doing isolation projects.

It’s been about coaching myself through feelings of failure, relinquishing control and adjusting my own expectations. I don’t think this project has an end point like building a chicken coop does, but I’m pretty happy to be doing it anyway.


(Not) Walking into Uncertainty

I'm not sure, but my experience is that having a sequence of uncertainties might actually makes things a bit more manageable. Seems a paradox, but perhaps provides some clues for living in these uncertain times.

So, to explain.

I arrived back from an overseas skiing trip with a serious leg injury in early March, just as the pandemic got serious here with the restrictions then lockdown.

Initially I was facing lots of unknowns regarding my treatment- did I have coronavirus? (test negative!), could I get to see the specialist and get surgery asap, could I recover in time for planned overseas trips, could I work?.

And then I get the surgery done and faced a whole new set of unknowns- how to manage with a full leg brace on 24/7 - could I sleep, work, etc?, how to get around?, how to even sit at home?, how to get rehabilitation?, and what does the rehab look like?, what should my leg look and feel like at the milestones in the rehab program?

And at the same time, Covid19 restrictions kick in and so a new set of unknowns emerge - how to get the stitches out with hospital cancelled?, face to face physio not available so how to recover?, how to exercise when staying at home with no walking?, how will it impact a fairly strict and lengthy rehabilitation program?, etc

But interestingly, I have survived OK when facing seemingly overwhelming uncertainty (both short and long term), and I was just reflecting on some of the things that might have helped:

  • Structure- providing myself a series of routines that gave me some short term certainty- a shower and dressing routine each morning, a short walk and coffee at the beach each day with my wife, timed 4 hourly exercise routine during the day, scheduled bi-weekly physiotherapy appointments, news hour each evening.
  • Not worrying about things I can’t control - letting go of the plans for travelling or skiing for 12 months, not stressing about needing someone else put my left sock and shoe on, relaxing about being driven everywhere, working as much as I can manage at home- even if it’s only 2 hours a day.
  • Keeping connected- using Zoom and WhatsApp to stay connected with clients, colleagues, friends and family
  • I’ve always been an optimist, so I guess that has also helped- I tend to look at things with a positive view, and that has been evident in how I have viewed my surgery and recovery and prospects- she’ll be right!
  • Also helpful is being flexible and trying some new things around my leg and recovery- like flexing my knee at home for physiotherapy rather than just relying on the expert- small safe to fail experiments!

So while I don’t recommend tearing a quad muscle tendon, it has given me new insights in how to thrive in uncertainty!


Is uncertainty good or bad? 4 different views + mine

To me, uncertainty is a state of not knowing. it’s when we can’t make sense of what is happening; it’s when we don’t know what will happen next; and worst of all it’s when we don’t know what WE SHOULD DO next.

Is this positive or negative? When uncertainty, unpredictability and not knowing feels uncomfortable, is it useful to invent or pretend certainty?

For many professionals to admit to being uncertain or not knowing is ‘career limiting’.  Careers are built on knowledge, on having answers, on solving problems. Leaders advance within organisations by knowing what to do, when to do it and why their solution will work.

Michael Lewis, author and financial journalist, says: ‘In the world we live in, political leaders don’t acknowledge uncertainty because it means admitting the possibility of error. The entire profession has arranged itself as if to confirm the wisdom of its decisions.’

However, not everyone sees uncertainty as negative. Austin Kleon, in his book ‘10 ways to be creative in good times and bad’, says: ‘To be 100% certain of who you are and what you do ... is not only completely overrated, it is also a roadblock to discovery.’

In my work over the past decade, I have become very aware of the dangers of knowing, of being the expert, and how it can be a roadblock to curiosity. The opposite of being certain doesn’t mean floundering in uncertainty. In my world the opposite of being certain, of being the expert, of having the answer, is being open, curious and willing to embrace the challenges of paradox rather than having a definite answer that closes off possibilities.

Lee Iacocca, the man who ran the Ford Motor Company in the 1960s and Chrysler in the 1980s, was pretty clear. He advised his executives that when they were faced with a sticky or tricky problem and weren’t sure of what to do next that they should: ‘Do anything ... something ...so long as you don’t just don't sit there. If you screw it up, start over. Try something else. If you wait until you've satisfied all the uncertainties, it may be too late.’

One of my favourite 21st century authors Yuval Noah Harari believes that to survive and flourish in today’s uncertain world, we need a lot of mental flexibility and great reserves of emotional balance. He says we will have to repeatedly let go of some of what we know best and feel at home with the unknown.

So, let’s learn to sit in the current uncertainty, even when it feels uncomfortable. Let’s take some of this advice and try stuff. Let’s be mentally flexible, emotionally balanced, open, curious and willing to embrace the challenges we face.

A friend recently commented how refreshing she found it when, in this current uncertainty, our leaders are able to admit to not knowing. They acknowledge that what we are facing is new and ‘unprecedented’, and there is no way of predicting with any certainty what is going to happen.  They are trying things, based on what they do know, while they monitor outcomes and learn from situations around the world. I think this is real progress.


Is it time to get off your horse?

A mouse! A mouse! My Kingdom for a mouse! Said no King ever. But maybe this is what leaders should be saying at this time of rapid change, disruption and great uncertainty.

How so? Picture a great maze that is all but impossible to solve. Two people stand ready to find the way through – a small girl with her shoebox full of mice and a great leader astride his horse. They start. The leader rides in with a plan to explore sector by sector. The girl releases her mice.

Eventually a mouse emerges from the exit, while from within can be heard the rider, still executing the search plan. While the horseman is still applying his idea, a mouse has found a way through.

According to a lovely framework by Chris Bolton, the horse represents the way most of us go about problem solving or creating change in uncertain situations. We have an idea we think could work. We get agreement to trial it. We do lots of work we hope will increase its chance of success. We plan it out and we run it. By the time it looks like it might not work we are so vested in it, with so much emotional and financial resourcing sunk into it, that we proceed  anyway.

Bolton says it is a solution dressed up as a trial. In other words, the horse is a Trojan horse – something sold as a test but built and run as ‘the answer’. The approach might have worked in Troy when all the Greeks had to do was get through a gate, but it doesn’t work well in more complex times.

So to the mice. Each one represents a small idea that is easy to put together, easy to test, easy to walk away from if it doesn’t work. Each test is an experiment designed to help you better understand the situation and learn more about the best way to proceed. Each mouse is set free in the maze and many will only find the dead ends, but even that is useful as it helps narrow down the options.

When facing uncertainty and complexity, Bolton advises us to use mice, not the horse. Test small, agile ideas that might include something obvious, something from left field, something naïve, something that seems unlikely to work, something that seems counter to your understanding of the situation. Together these diverse mice – each one a small opportunity to test an idea and learn from its success or failure – will point the way forward.

In these uncertain times, are you creating a solution dressed up as a test, or setting the mice free to run in unexpected and useful directions?


The best laid plans of mice and Treasurers

Where did our national surplus go? Just months ago in Australia we were being assured that the nation was “back in black”. What’s more, there was a clear plan to prove that this was the case – otherwise known as the 19/20 Budget.

So what happened? As I write, governments around the world are scrambling to respond to the burgeoning COVID19 ‘crisis’. In Australia this comes on the back of a horror season of drought and bushfire and flood. Together these shocks have put the budget in the shredder as state and federal governments are forced to loosen the purse strings.

So why am I writing about this? I’ve been reflecting on our collective obsession with ‘the plan’. More specifically, our tendency to expect someone else – typically government – to have the plan and, by extension, the solution to our problems. Governments get caught in the trap too and can’t resist behaving as though their plan is the answer

But if the plan is the answer, where has our surplus gone?

Obviously the series of unpredictable events has made the budget redundant. But that is my point. Running a nation is complex and getting more so every day as global connections deepen. It is always going to be complex, meaning that all plans – all budgets - are at constant risk of disruption.

I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t create national budgets and do our best to stick to them. I am suggesting that our at times irrational belief in THE PLAN has consequences:

  1. Those who create and own the plan are motivated to defend it at all costs and find it difficult to change course.
  2. Those who didn’t create it find it easy to criticise the plan and its authors.
  3. They also absolve themselves of any responsibility for delivering the plan: “it’s the government’s budget. What are they going to do about it”.
  4. We all get despondent and disappointed when the plan doesn’t work as we thought it would. Let the blame game begin.

To avoid the worst of these consequences when facing complex situations, I suggest we get better at identifying aspirational targets that we can all get behind. Rather than focussing our energies on the plan – which is always at risk – let’s get behind an aspiration that motivates and inspires us together. Even if our plans change along the way the ‘light on the hill’ gives us our sense of shared destination.

What sort of aspiration for our economy could we all get behind? And what part in achieving that could I then be motivated to play?

Similarly, are you facing complexity? What is the shared target you and your team are working towards?


A plan or a target?

There’s been a lot of talk recently by politicians here in Australia about the benefit of plans versus targets, particularly in relation to reducing carbon emissions to ensure the future of our planet. This binary argument may be useful as a club to beat the opposing political party with but is it useful as a way to safeguard our future?

Let’s look at what they offer.

A plan is typically a series of steps or intended actions within a specified timeframe, developed to co-ordinate the activities of many people in order to achieve a desired outcome. Plan making is useful when the present situation is known, the desired outcome is clear and the intended actions required to achieve the outcome are obvious, known or at least knowable.

So important are plans to the successful completion of small and large scale projects that a whole discipline, as well as hundreds of project management software programs have been developed to co-ordinate the skills and personnel involved. One of the key requirements of a useful plan is that the enthusiasm and energy required from those who will carry it out can be sustained over the life of the plan. Unfortunately we have seen too many plans still sitting ... unactioned ... on shelves as testament to the desire to create a plan before getting commitment to making it work.

A target, on the other hand, is typically strategic, aspirational and longer-term. While it may be time-defined, it is future focused, so any attempt at including details of actions required to achieve it would be mere fantasy. At the time of setting the target they are unknown. While the target can be articulated with clarity such as “zero carbon emissions across Australia by 2050,” what this will look like in every sector is unknowable.

A target is intended to be aspirational, inspirational and motivational.  It provides some certainty as to intention.  It encourages all those with an interest in achieving longer term outcomes, even past their own working lives, to start thinking about and working towards achieving what may currently seem an impossible outcome. It provides a language to share ideas across sectors and find partners and collaborators in unlikely places. It encourages investment in specific technologies that may contribute towards achieving outcomes that at the time of setting the target are not even on the horizon.

No one person or group of people will manage the journey to the target, although many may contribute.  The target is like a ‘light on a distant hill’ inspiring us to act and learn together, even when we are most unsure. It will encourage individuals, teams, organisations and sectors to make small advances towards the target over time.  Celebrating every step that brings us closer to the target, small or significant, made anywhere, by anyone, attracts more people with a desire to contribute.  Success breeds success, across sector boundaries and among unlikely partners.

Targets and plans will make different contributions towards reaching a ‘light on the hill’.

It is helpful to start with a target. If it’s important and genuine, it will support individuals, organisations and sectors as they invest in and experiment with new ideas, technologies and ways of acting together. Solutions will emerge from uncertainty, new thinking and collaborative effort. Then plans and activities will have their place to deliver them.


Who do you trust?

Who do you need to trust when working with others on difficult problems? I have been reflecting on this question since a recent conversation with a colleague. He has joined a big infrastructure project that continues to cause some disruption for people living and working in the area. The organisation has managed to build good relationships with most stakeholders, but there is one local stakeholder who seems to be particularly angry. My colleague hasn’t met him yet, being new to the team, but all of his colleagues have been telling him what a difficult man this person is.

“Don’t go near him alone” is their advice.

My colleague wants to improve the relationship with this person and his instinct is to go and talk to him at his place of business. But he’s nervous about going alone. He also isn’t sure who to take with him, because his co-workers seem to have made up their minds that the man is a lost cause.

What can he do? Seems to me this is a question of trust, on a couple of fronts. He could take his co-workers’ warnings at face value and choose never to go near the angry stakeholder, but he knows this can’t lead to a better relationship. He wants to go and meet him. But can he trust the guy if he goes alone?

Obviously we all need to prioritise personal safety, yet in my experience extending trust is usually rewarded. If my colleague takes the step alone, demonstrating that he trusts the guy to be rational, he will likely find a rational guy. Angry? Perhaps. Unhappy? Sounds certain. But neither of those things are unbearable.

I also wonder if there is a deeper trust barrier here. To go and meet and talk with an angry person who feels aggrieved about what has been ‘done to him’, takes courage. It also takes some confidence. And I wonder if my colleague is thinking about whether or not he has the capability to manage an outraged stakeholder. In other words, he may be thinking “can I trust myself to do this difficult thing?”

When collaborating, we need to extend trust to others. But I’m starting to think that it is just as important to extend trust to ourselves. Collaboration can be challenging and difficult, perhaps leading us to think “I can’t do that”. But if we want different outcomes we have to do different things.

So trust yourself. You can do this!


Build a relationship before you tackle a job

Even though our home wasn’t at risk, my own reaction to the bushfires and smoke over the holiday period surprised me- I was tentative, worried, frustrated, lacked focus and was generally a bit stressed, even around family and good friends, and even more so with strangers.

It reminded me of the challenges of getting things done when people are stressed, and I remembered a few things I have often found helpful in similar situations....

  • feel, feel, feel- show that others matter- acknowledge how people feel
  • listen, listen, listen- acknowledge and understand what matters to others first. Then people may be willing to listen to what you have to say
  • build the relationships before you tackle the job
  • acknowledge that you do not know- what to do…., what is best..., where to start.... etc, and that it's OK to ask for help
  • understand that the solutions are best not coming from you, but are better to emerge from conversations with others (even if you think you know what to do!)
  • expect the next steps will not necessarily be the "answer", but will be a start towards finding some solutions together
  • accept that it will take time and people can't be rushed.

Looking at the list also made me realise how hard I find trying to think and act like that- my default is often the opposite!

Do you have other ideas that might help?