practice failing

Everyone knows that the way to innovate, grow and become smarter is to fail.

Fail more, fail better, fail smarter, fail wisely – experts agree that if you want to succeed, you need to be willing to fail.

Which is great. I get that, intellectually.

But how do you actually DO it?

Because no matter how strongly you believe in it’s importance, or how many strong words you put next to it, the fact remains that actually failing is scary as hell. We are socially wired to avoid failure at all costs for fear of being banished from the tribe and left out in the wilderness to die (though if you find yourself in that scenario, reading Clan of the Cave Bear and asking yourself, what would Ayla do? will go a long ways towards assuring your survival).

From author Jean Auel’s website:

In Ayla’s story readers find what very well may be the story of human survival, for it is by wit, instinct, adaptation, and gathering knowledge that Ayla thrives among a people who are not like her, in a society that sees her as strange, in a world where elements, animals, and the enmity of others make surviving each day a challenge.

Anyway, point is, many of us avoid failure in high stakes situations, because when the stakes are high, you are in survival mode, and survival mode tells you it is imperative that you not fail, that you fit in, that you win. But as Ayla would tell you, this is exactly the situation when having a good relationship with your fear of failure can help you. Because here is the thing:

Failure is a potential – even likely – outcome, no matter WHAT you do.

You can’t control when and where it will rear it’s head.

What you can control is your response to it.

So for instance, if you find yourself alone with a bear and your slingshot misfires, you are in much better shape if you have experienced a misfire many, many times before. If you have only operated your slingshot (I have no idea what a slingshot is exactly or if it can misfire, but let’s stay with this metaphor anyway) under optimal conditions, then you will have no idea what to do when it doesn’t work.

It is avoidance of failure that can get you killed, and it is being on good terms with failure that can help you survive.

So, back to our original question: HOW to get on good terms with failure?

I think the way to do this is to practice failing when the stakes are low. To embrace it when you aren’t, say, starting a new job or putting your savings account on the line or moving to a brand new city.

This Sunday, I am offering space to do just that, in my “I’m the Worst” workshop.

We are going to not merely be OKAY with failure, to TOLERATE our mistakes. We are going to try our hardest to make them, in the biggest, boldest, dumbest way possible.

 We are going to celebrate failure.

We are going to fail over and over again.

We are going to see what it means to win at losing.

We aren’t going to do this because we enjoy looking like jackasses (though we might enjoy it a little bit). We are going to do this so we can encounter that fear, dance with it, and get to know it. We are going to do this so we are well acquainted with falling.

Have you ever watched a baby learn how to walk? There is a LOT of falling involved. Like way more than seems reasonable. A lot of tipping over and lurching and bumping into things and tripping and getting stuck. And then, slowly, they learn how to balance their weight, how to right themselves, how to measure their footsteps, when to jump and when to shuffle, how to recover their balance gracefully – how not to fall.

That is what we are going to do! Spend two hours falling and failing. (And if you can’t be there in person, you can play along at home by failing at something low-stakes this week and seeing how it feels. You could tell a bad joke at a party. You could wear an ugly outfit around the house. You could wear it out dancing. You could dance like Elaine. The options are limitless.)

Then maybe next time we find ourselves in a high stakes situation, we can go into it thinking, hey, I’ve failed before, it’s not so bad.

I’m going to spend two minutes being awkward at this party and then I’m going to find someone I like talking to and we will hit it off.

I’m going to sweat too much, talk too fast and make a dumb joke in this job interview, and then I’m going to ask some good questions and show them I know what I’m talking about.

I’m going to spend 6 weeks (or months) having nightly panic attacks in my empty apartment and going to random coffee shops and the wrong bars before I find the right ones and figure out where my people are.

See what I mean? If you’re ready for it, it’s a little less scary. If you’ve experienced flop sweat and survived, you know it’s not as life threatening as you think it is.

So let’s do this!

Scene-from-the-film-version-of-Clan-of-the-Cave-Bear

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Being Confident, part I: what does it mean

Confidence is a word that fascinates me.

It seems to fascinate everyone. It’s almost impossible to read anything self-help oriented without someone telling you to BE CONFIDENT! (The other thing you should always do is BE YOURSELF – if your real self is not confident, I guess you’re shit out of luck).

So I thought maybe we could break down the word confidence and see what’s behind it, since we’re all so in love with it.


CONFIDENCE = with strength

 = sureness

 = sure grasp of situation, facts

 = comfortable in your skin

 = leader

 = charismatic

 = fortress – unbreakable – impenetrable

 = armor = projecting an image of strength = invulnerable

 = secrecy — sharing a secret in confidence — a confidante

 = trust — you have the trust of others

 = con man (literally a confidence man) – a professional liar, a swindler


A few interesting things here:

Confidence is an action, an exchange – the act of confiding or being confided in – a transaction between people, not a static state.

Confidence is conferred upon you by others. You inspire confidence, which means you inspire others to trust you.

When people give you their trust, they are opening themselves up to potential danger. They have confidence in you, but they also know that you could take advantage of them.

Here’s another way of thinking about it: we trust someone who is holding down the fort, because we have to. We don’t want someone guarding the gates who will fumble with the arrows. But we also know that no one has 100% sure aim. And so when we put our trust in someone, we are also acknowledging our dependence on them, which is an inherently risky state.

Confidence is also something that we project outward about ourselves in order to protect our vulnerable real selves.

And yet by projecting a fortress of strength, we are by nature projecting a false reality, which we know is false. We know that we are not in fact infallible and inviolable.  So we are depending on this fortress of certitude to protect us, and simultaneously doubting it’s strength.

This is very interesting!

It suggests that confidence and doubt are much more intertwined than we think.

Which makes sense to me. I always find it strange when someone tells me to be more confident, because I feel confident, even when I’m in the grips of the strongest self-doubt. Seeing it through this lens, I realize that when someone tells me to be more confident, what they’re saying is, I don’t trust you.

Hmmm. Is this true, or did I just fall down a word association rabbit hole? I’ve got more to say about this, but it will have to wait for next time.

Justin thinks she’s confident (I think this song is terrible)

Try this: A VISUAL SYLLABUS

Today as I was dreaming up the trajectory for the next round of the Creative Workout Group (there are still spots open if you want to sign up! I would love to have you there) I got the idea to make a visual syllabus.

I taped a big piece of paper on the wall, wrote the numbers 1-6 (one for each class), wrote the big themes we’d cover under each number, and then drew a picture for each.

IMG_20150310_131235It was so much fun and I highly recommend it if you’re trying to figure out the big scope of a project.

  • Write the name of your big thing at the top of a big piece of paper
  • Divide the big thing into chunks — could be classes, chapters, months, weeks, hours, years
  • Write the names / numbers of the chunks on the paper
  • Draw what will happen in each chunk of time (the word ‘chunk’ is unfortunate but I’ve chosen it and I’m sticking with it)
  • If you want, write action steps, exercises, reading to be done under the drawing. In my case it’s a breakdown of how each class will go — the structure, the exercises we’ll use and any relevant reading material.

I love the one I made because it gives me visual pleasure, which helps keep me connected to why I’m doing this, what I love about it and how it fits into my big picture.

On not praising, not giving advice, and drawing your feelings

I’ve been reading the book How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk in preparation for the approach of (duh duh DUHHHHH) the toddler state.

IMG_20150218_171723

What, me tantrum?

It’s a fantastic book, and what’s fascinating is how much of their advice about how to communicate with kids applies just as well to adults.

In particular, these three techniques struck me – I notice myself using them in sessions as a creative guide, and I think they are wonderful tools we can all use to communicate better.

1) Unhelpful vs. helpful praise

As they put it, “praise can be tricky business. Sometimes the most well-meant praise brings about unexpected reactions.”

In particular, these reactions:

  • Praise can make you doubt the praiser.
  • Praise can lead to immediate denial.
  • Praise can be threatening.
  • Praise can force you to focus on your weaknesses.
  • Praise can create anxiety and interfere with activity.
  • Praise can also be experienced as manipulation.

What works far better is “helpful praise”, which is descriptive rather than evaluative.

“If you describe with appreciation what you see or feel, the child, after hearing the description, is then able to praise himself.”

The problem with words that evaluate – good, beautiful, smart, awesome – is that they draw attention to your judgment as the praiser, instead of the person or thing you’re praising.

So if I say, Wow, what a beautiful painting, you are likely to think, She’s bullshitting me, or Jeez, she thinks that’s beautiful? or I don’t think it’s beautiful at all, or What’s she going to think of the next one… etc etc etc. But you are not likely to think, My painting is in fact beautiful.

On the other hand, if I focus on what I see and feel in response to the painting, you can decide for yourself what to do with that information.

I could say, I see a lot of color in this painting. Or, This painting reminds me of a field I used to run in as a kid. Or, I love the way the paint is layered on the canvas.

Do you see the difference? One is an evaluation and stops the conversation – one opens the door to a larger conversation that is much more interesting than good job/bad job.

2) The futility of giving advice

“When you give immediate advice to children, they either feel stupid (‘Why didn’t I think of that myself?’), resentful (‘Don’t tell me how to run my life!’), or irritated (‘What makes you think I didn’t think of that already?’). When a child figures out for herself what she wants to do, she grows in confidence and is willing to assume responsibility for her decision.”

I think the exact same thing is true of adults. And what they recommend doing instead is this:

  • Help her sort out her tangled thoughts and feelings.
  • Restate the problem as a question. (They also suggest that you “keep quiet after you’ve asked a question like this. Your silence provides the soil in which the child’s solutions can grow.”)
  • Point out resources your child can use outside the home.

The more I think about it, this book is basically a manual for being a Creative Guide. I can’t think of a better description for how I work with people than those three things.

3) The usefulness of drawing your feelings

“… the one activity that seems most comfortable for parents to watch, and most satisfying for children to do, is to draw their feelings.”

They describe this scene between a mother and her 3-year-old:

“’I knelt down, handed the pencil and pad to Joshua, and said, ‘Here, show me how angry you are. Draw me a picture of the way you feel.’ Joshua jumped up immediately and began to draw angry circles. Then he showed it to me and said, ‘This is how angry I am!’

I said, ‘You really are angry!’ and tore another piece of paper from the pad. ‘Show me more,’ I said…. When I handed him a fourth piece of paper, he was definitely calmer. He looked at it a long time. ‘now I show my happy feelings,’ he said.

How interesting that we as adults would rarely think of doing this!

Can you imagine? Next time you and your partner / mother / best friend / co-worker get into a fight, imagine saying this:

Hey, partner.

You seem frustrated. Can you draw your feelings for me?

Wow, that IS frustrating!

I am frustrated too, can I draw what I’m feeling for you?

I am going to start using this as a conflict resolution tool and see if it works! I’ll report back, and if you try it, let me know how it goes.

I also love the cartoons in the book to demonstrate what to do and not to do, like this: