Monday, July 8, 2013

An overachievers guide to dealing with failure

Last week I had lunch with a professor I had in community college. She teaches Latin American Humanities, and we chatted about my current endeavor to learn Spanish.

We laughed as she recounted how hard it must be for an overachiever like myself to learn a language because I hate to make mistakes. I threw my hands up in laughter and yelled "yess that's so true!!"

I'm journaling about my experience learning Spanish (as part of an exploration of my biracial identity) for a future book, and in my journal one of the most frequent patterns is my fear of failure.

Because, as I've come to realize, learning a language, like many other difficult and worthwhile things in life, requires failure.  You have to make mistakes to learn a language. If you're not willing to make mistakes, you'll never learn.

And boy, do I hate that! 

As an overachiever, we love our A's, we love syllabi that lay out exactly what we have to do to get that A, and we get a high from doing exactly what we need to do to succeed. We love the rush of a 100% on an exam or getting back an essay with few red marks.

However, life doesn't quite work this way, and it often leads to a lot of anxiety after college; and sadly it sometimes stunts the potential of many overachievers - because failure terrifies us.

But as I've learned, it's not so bad once you realize failure is kind of like its own college class to be aced. It has much to teach us, and if we become a student of failure, we can still be 'overachivers' in the ways we deal with it.

Here are a few tips I've learned over the past few years as I've failed to roll my r's and gone through the many failures that come after graduating college and starting a business: 

1. Read biographies of people you admire

How to Be Like Walt by Pat Williams is the book that helped me deal with the twenty-something crisis I experienced after I graduated college. I'm a big Disney fan but never knew much about the man behind the mouse. The book was recommended to me by my first professional mentor, and reading about Walt Disney's failures struck a strong chord with me.

This book helped me understand that failure was part of the journey for every super successful person. I noticed how Walt dealt with failure, how he learned from it, how he stayed imaginative, and how he never stopped building his skills and thinking about how he could add value to others.

Browse a few biographies or memoirs of really successful people whom you think are intriguing, and, as you read their story, analyze the failure parts. Focus on the timeline. Understand the years and the heartache success requires. And notice how these people dealt with the failures in their lives. Because they'll have gone through many more failures than you ever realized. 

2. Consider comedians

I'm a huge entertainment and pop culture junky, and I've always been fascinated with comedy. Confession: I'm not funny. In social situations you'll find me as a happy audience member; I love to laugh and I love surrounding myself with funny friends. But I've never been that person.

And recently I've realized it's partly because of my overachiever-nature. To be funny, you have to be willing to be unfunny.

I've read a few books about stand up comedians and learned that most of them, especially the most popular ones, test out their material in small clubs and work and rework their stuff until every single bit gets a laugh. 

The funny people in my life often tell jokes that fall flat. But because they keep telling jokes, they eventually make everyone red in the face with laughter. I admire funny people. It's an art that requires great courage, and it's an art to be learned from. 

3. Learn

At the Phi Theta Kappa International convention this past year speaker and tennis champion Billie Jean King said something I'll never forget: Choose to see failure as feedback.

If you take away the negative association with failure you take away its power. It's simply feedback to help you get closer to reaching your goals. Learn from it. Grow from it. And don't let it get the best of you. 

4. Laugh

"Isa, oh my gosh are you okay? Are you hurt? " my husband yells through the other side of my office door. 

"Yes, I'm fine" I yell back, laughing. "I'm just working on rolling my r's."


Never let the fear of failure keep you from taking chances; it's the only way to grow, and the best way to get better. 

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