Failure Is a Power Tool
5 steps to fail your way to success.
Posted Oct 20, 2019 | Reviewed by Kaja Perina
In the summer of 2018, I trained to become a mediator. A mediator is basically a trail guide out of conflict, helping quarreling people hear and understand each other and then collaborate on a solution.
I’ve essentially been in the conflict resolution business for 25 years, writing a science-based syndicated advice column and “science-help” books (most recently "Unf*ckology: A Field Guide to Living with Guts and Confidence”).
So I went into my mediation training feeling pretty sure I would be like Road Runner, leaving all my Wile E. Coyote trainee colleagues in my dust.
Um, not quite how it worked out.
I was overwhelmed by the amount of information poured into us over five intense days in the community room of a Watts firehouse. I struggled through the many role-playing sessions, frustrated at my inability to pull the appropriate “what the hell am I supposed to do now?” from the infobog in my head.
But mediation school was the first part of a two-step process. In exchange for our free training, we had to complete 200 hours of volunteer mediation work in the Los Angeles City Attorney’s office, in the Dispute Resolution Program, which provides free dispute resolution for LA residents.
The program’s supervisors were honest with me—they weren’t sure whether I was cut out for it.
I begged them to give me a chance, and they did...probably against their better judgment.
In the weeks before I started as a volunteer, I decided that I needed to rethink the approach we typically take to a new venture—striving for success—and in fact, put all that “eye on the prize” thinking out of the picture.
Don’t get me wrong: I was determined to master mediation through whatever grubby, hard work it would take. But I realized that a laser focus on succeeding is problematic: It can lead us to put spin on our shortcomings rather than digging our way out of them.
I had a bunch of shortcomings to dig out of.
I decided to get in bed with failure—and by that, I mean accept and even embrace being really, really bad at something I desperately wanted to be good at.
There were five elements to this, to what I now think of as “failing your way to success:”
- Identify as a beginner.
- See criticism as a gift.
- Understand that perfectionism doesn’t make you perfect; it freezes you in your tracks.
- Don’t expect instant genius.
- Savor the “small wins.”
1. Identify as a beginner.
Unless you’re a baby, you aren’t a beginner at everything in your life.
I took comfort in what I’m good at—the applied science writing I’ve done for 25 years. Focusing on what I do well helped me feel that I had the “emotional capital” to embrace being a beginner at mediation—to be open about my being new and a bit lost.
This kept me from trying to present myself to my more experienced volunteer mediator colleagues with some polished front, like the new hotshot (which I most certainly was not). Instead, my approach was: “Hi, I’m a mediation larva. Please give me tips on what to do.” I also asked a ton of questions. This allowed me to learn faster than if I’d silently faked knowing what I was doing.
My larval persona also put me in the mindset to do a lot of observing and borrowing from senior mediators. For example, Eduardo, my Brazilian colleague, would call clients with this tone of voice that’s the closest thing I’ve ever heard to a verbal hug. I “stole” that from him and especially love using it when I call elderly clients.
2. See criticism as a gift.
Comfort with criticism is one of my secret weapons as a writer. I hire an editor to highlight all the places in my writing that I’m boring, unfunny, and unclear, which allows me to make those areas interesting, funny, and clear.
Criticism can be ego-chewing in the moment but it ultimately makes me and my writing better (uh, when it comes from people whose opinion I value, not random Internet trolls). Understanding this helps me shut up and listen open-mindedly to criticism instead of going knee-jerk defensive. (Initially, you might have to preplan to do this, since our amygdala—our brain’s threat detection center—tends to read a verbal attack like one being made on us by people clutching bloody spears, and activates our adrenaline and other defense helpers accordingly.)
Seeing the benefits of criticism for improving my writing allowed me to recast it as a tool to help me grow as a mediator rather than seeing it as some commentary on my worth.
In the post-mediation debrief sessions, I took notes on the areas and techniques where the senior mediator observing me thought I came up short. I pasted my notes on my bathroom wall and reflected on them throughout the day as I showered or brushed my teeth. This repeated daily drilling of my “needs improvement areas” helped me ingrain them in my head, and I saw steady improvements in my technique in each mediation I did.
3. Understand that perfectionism doesn’t make you perfect; it freezes you in your tracks.
To be human is to err. A lot. So our being uncomfortable with the possibility of screwing up is our being uncomfortable with being human.
I love how psychologist Kristin Neff instead sees our fallibility as part of what connects us to other humans. Frankly, if you take stock of the daily failures of everybody you know, you will see what constant screwups they all are, every last one of them: They drive inattentively, nearly picking off pedestrians; they talk lovingkindness in between yelling at their kids; they gleefully sneak the food that will take years off their life; and do all sorts of other crappy stuff.
In other words, perfectionism—expecting yourself to do everything flawlessly—is irrational and frankly, inhuman. The impossible desire to be error-free also tends to make you freeze like a pillar of salt. Also, the reality is, a piece you’ve written with a few mistakes (or even a lot of mistakes) is better than a blank page (or, worse, an empty room when you don’t even show up).
If you don’t put the mistakes on the page (along with the good stuff), you won’t have the opportunity to learn from them. In short, being a perfectionist makes you stink at whatever you’re doing far longer and far worse than if you go brave and just put your work out there.
Sure, there’s the ego problem. However, as I write in “Unf*ckology,” your feelings are not the boss of you. It’s not what you feel; it’s what you do. This means that you can have a fear but simply refuse to give in to it. You just glare at it for a moment and then do what needs to be done.
I fight my own perfectionistic tendencies in my writing—moving on from a line that’s not quite fabulous rather than grinding away for hours at it—by using “satisficing,” a strategy from economist Herbert Simon. As wrote in my syndicated advice column about "satisficing":
This combo of "satisfy" and "suffice" means making a "good enough" choice—as opposed to incurring the costs of endlessly searching for the best choice, called "maximizing." (Think of somebody who spends an hour looking for the primo parking space by the store entrance—in order to save time walking to and from their car.)
By not maximizing—not struggling endlessly to make a single line radioactively funny or profound—I end up leaving myself time and energy at the tail end of a project. This allows me to punch things up in a way I couldn't have if I'd spent eons perfecting some tiny corner of it. This, in turn, often makes me emotionally loose enough to be funny or profound!
4. Don’t expect instant genius. Ask for breaks and take time to think.
Hit my computer up for the definition of a word, and it will not stall, whining, “But I have a hangover!” It will give you the meaning pronto, via the little Apple dictionary app.
You, on the other hand, are not a robot, and your mind sometimes (and even often) needs time to chew on a question or concern before it can give you the answer to spit out.
When I first started doing mediations, I was under the impression that I needed to immediately have a strategy for resolution in mind, right after the parties with the dispute each finished detailing their side of the story. Basically, I was expecting myself to exhibit what I call “instant genius”—about complicated, highly emotional issues I’d just heard about.
However, I didn’t realize I was being too hard on myself until Caroline, one of my supervisors and a natural at mediation, co-mediated a case with me. After the parties gave their sides, she announced a break for them to go get coffee, take a walk, get some air. When they left the room, she turned to me and said, “Now we’ll figure out our strategy.”
Whoa. Caroline wasn’t an instant genius, with the resolution for all conflicts immediately popping up in her mind?
Huge lesson for me—one that I now apply in various arenas in my life. The upshot: Unless the question you’re being asked has some urgency—like “Your money or your life?!”—you can probably insist, “I need a little time to think on this” and get back to the person.
5. Savor the “small wins.”
“Small wins” are the tiny victories you can fish out of your losses. As I explained in “Unf*ckology”:
A natural part of putting yourself out there is getting shot down. When that happens, there’s a way to put your loss or failure in perspective—and even make it motivating—and that’s by reappraising it as a “small win.”
...This “small win” idea is actually pretty important for motivation when you’re trying to make a big change in yourself. It comes from a classic social science paper by organizational psychologist Karl Weick, exploring what motivates people to take action on social issues.
When a problem is vast—GLOBAL HUNGER!!—we are overwhelmed and feel we can’t possibly make a difference, which stops us from doing anything at all. Weick explains that we can overcome this effect by “changing the scale of the problem”—breaking it down into manageable chunks and taking on some tiny part of it. For example, if we address global hunger by bringing a sandwich to a homeless guy, we immediately make a difference, see it right then and there in our own little world, and feel good.
And feeling good—feeling we’ve accomplished something—motivates us to go accomplish more.
My first day as a volunteer, I had some supervision on my first intake call (the initial call-back we make to the community member's message that they're seeking mediation). And when I say “some supervision,” I mean I was in a conference room on speakerphone (with permission of the community member on the other end), with Caroline as well as Shaphan, the head of our program, and Camilo, the Director of the Community Justice Initiative, all looking on and listening in to see whether I could actually hack it.
I was doing okay on the call (phew!), and then there was some bit of procedural information I didn’t know. “I’m going to let my colleague, Caroline, tell you about that,” I said. She did, but as soon as she finished answering what I didn’t know, I said, “Thanks for that, Caroline!” and I jumped right back into asking the client more questions.
After the call, Caroline told me that, typically, when she has to weigh in like this, the junior mediator goes all limp and lets her take over the rest of the call. I didn’t do that. This, she said, was a sign to her that I’d do okay as a mediator.
I went home from that day still feeling lost and needing about 26 hours of sleep, but I took that little compliment from Caroline and blew it up into a “small win” I clung to. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, but Caroline, who really knows mediation, had confidence I’d figure it out.
And ultimately, I did.
Ultimately, I got to where I wanted to be—becoming a confident, accomplished mediator and making a difference in clients' lives—by going humble instead of hotshot. (Of course, when inexperienced people act all hotshot, they know what hollow “hotshots” they really are. They also miss the joy of making themselves improve bit by bit, which I have to tell you, is really exciting.)
By May of 2019, there I was, the slug of my training class, getting one of two top awards given to volunteer mediators, with my supervisors presenting it calling me “the embodiment of everything a mediator should be.”
I keep this trophy by my desk as a reminder both of my success and to be brave enough to fail.
Alkon, Amy. "Unf*ckology: A Field Guide to Living with Guts and Confidence." St. Martin’s Griffin, 2018.
LeDoux, Joseph E. "Coming to terms with fear." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111, no. 8 (2014): 2871-2878.
Neff, Kristin D., and Y. P. Hsieh. "Self-compassion scale." (2008).
Simon, Herbert A. "Invariants of human behavior." Annual review of psychology 41, no. 1 (1990): 1-20.
Weick, Karl E. "Small wins: Redefining the scale of social problems." American Psychologist 39, no. 1 (1984): 40.