Embracing the Fear of Failure

"He who never makes mistakes, never makes anything," goes an English Proverb.

Unless we learn to embrace failure (whether it's led by an unavoidable mishap, a moral lapse, or a risk miscalculated), we remain snugly tucked inside our comfort zone. The pressure to be perfect leaves us tip-toeing around family members or coasting on automatic pilot at work, feeling safe but stagnated—and not quite alive.

From vaccines to Velcro, many inventions were spawned from accidents, seeming failures. But when Fiona Lee, psychology and business professor at the University of Michigan, explored which conditions help people experiment with novel ideas, she uncovered an interesting phenomenon: "Managers talk a lot about innovation and being on the cutting edge, but on an individual level, many people are not willing to try new things."

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What's holding us back? A fear of failure.

"Corporate America has very little tolerance for failure," Lee reports. Compensation is typically based on tasks well-done, not spectacular (and costly) failures that could eventually produce breakthroughs.

Bosses preach innovation, and yet they hover over workers, poised to slap wrists. Lee's study concluded that rewarding employees who repeatedly try new things and fail leads to more innovation and more long-term success. But the more prevalent mixed-message style of management has employees so scared and rigid that they innovate less than they would have if their bosses had never uttered the word at all.

Even if environmental conditions allow for high failure tolerance, some people will take setbacks to heart instead of to mind. Such people let a disappointment seep into their sense of self like a poison.

University of Washington psychologist Jonathon Brown found that those lacking self-esteem overgeneralize their failures to conclude that they are just plain less intelligent and less competent than others. Paradoxically, the best way to build self-esteem is to take action after falling down, to build a reserve of personal efficacy.

Blunders are a necessary component of relationships, too. What's important is how they are handled. Top marriage researcher John Gottman has famously figured out how to predict divorce by observing couples' interactions. He found that it's not how many arguments that foretells an impending split, but rather whether a couple can effectively repair ties in the aftermath of a disagreement.

Everyone messes up. It's the ability to say "I'm sorry" and to fix the relationships that count.

Buying into the myth of the perfect marriage can encourage couples to avoid conflict. But that renders them devastated when problems inevitably arise. "Look at the craziness of what we spend on weddings to try to make something spotless and flawless to start off the relationship," says Atlanta psychiatrist Frank Pittman.

"And yet, you can be sure there will be a good fight and bad sex within 24 hours." Pittman says that rather than working to achieve romantic perfection, people must learn to survive reality together. "A married couple that has never had a fight has missed having to examine themselves, to recognize their own foolishness, to expose their shortcomings and realize that they can be loved anyway."

Even dramatic missteps such as infidelity can forge a stronger union. While Pittman doesn't recommend someone go out and have an affair just to shake things up, he insists that once an adulterer has confessed and the affair is over, a great opportunity lies for each partner to discover the real person behind the facade.

Children, too, need to be given some rope to ensure they fail. The teenager whose mother doesn't let him oversleep and face the consequences of arriving late to school misses a lesson in responsible behavior.

And his mom denies herself the joys of messiness: "I occasionally see people whose children have never gotten into trouble—and they missed the experience of child-raising," says Pittman.

Perhaps in every realm of life, we should not merely accept failure, but actively go out of our way to fail. Then if we do, we can chalk it up as a success.

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