Tuesday, October 28, 2014

An overachiever's guide to failure and uncertainty

Overachiever: someone who's good at following the rules, going the extra mile, getting the A; also adept at avoiding failure.

That's not Webster's definition, it's just the first thing that came to my mind.

Hi, my name is Isa and I'm an overachiever. 

My overachiever's nature has led me to deeply explore the world of success, who gets it, what makes it, how hard you have to work to get it, what it requires, etc.

And the kind of success I tend to admire most is the kind had by the rule breakers, the artists, the creators, the entrepreneurs, the inventors, the leaders. 

By nature I'm not a rule breaker. I'm a rule follower. I'm not comfortable with risk, adventure, uncertainty, and, the big one, failure.

For the most of my life, this served me well.

School was made for overachievers. We're lucky in that. Privileged in fact. Overachievers can continue to follow the rules and do very well in life.

But what about the brand of overachievers who aren't interested in careers where rule-following matters. What if you want to overachieve at something that's scary, risky, and requires lots of failure along the way?

If that describes you, then this is just for you; it's something I wish I'd had before I set out on my journey of trying to overachieve in the world of risk and uncertainty.

An Overachiever's Guide to Failure and Uncertainty

1 - Drown out the noise
There are a lot of rules around you, a lot of paths, a lot of people telling you what success is. Sometimes as overachievers we get so wrapped up in the definitions being put upon us (we're good at that, remember? There isn't a class we can't ace, a syllabus we can't follow) but we rarely stop and think about our real values and priorities, and how we really want to define what success means in our lives. 

Find a quiet place, grab a notebook or a great journal, and start by writing out what success really means to you - if judgement, money, and rules weren't a factor, what would success really look like in your life? Forget about every other expectation or expected path, and just write like no one's judging (or grading ;)).

2 - Read books about people you admire
Once you've really thought about what success looks like to you, find some books about people who have achieved that kind of success. Pay close attention to their failures and the uncertainty in their path. What risks did they have to take? What happened when they failed? What kept them going? Why did their pursuit matter? When did they have to evolve their dreams? Who helped them along the way?  

Write down the insights you gain and find someone to talk with about the ideas you gleam.

3 - Admit failure and uncertainty
There's often a pressure to seem like you have it all together. "You don't know your major yet!? You don't have a five year plan?! You must be the worst person ever." Okay, so it might not always be that dramatic, but it can feel that way sometimes.

Don't be afraid to answer these questions honestly, especially when talking to friends. Admit that you are still trying to figure it out. Some of the most successful people I've met aren't afraid to say "I still don't know what I want to be when I grow up." 

I've noticed that most of the successful people I admire, talk to, and read about, seem to embrace uncertainty and failure like friends. It's not that the processes are fun (they're not!) but they understand that they are a mandatory part of the journey.

There's nothing like being given permission to admit you're unsure and afraid. Be honest and give others permission to talk about the failure and uncertainty in their lives. When you admit your failures/uncertainties, you can almost see people relax, their shoulders drop, their breathing slows, and they think, "ahh, finally, I don't have to pretend. We can be real here for a moment." 

Create those conversations and bask in the honesty.

4 - Know that it's the worst
Okay, so, as an overachiever I've got to be honest: I hate failure and uncertainty! If you're one of those people who are all zen about failure and uncertainty then good for you, please share your tips in the comments below. But here's the honest truth, as an overachiever, I've found that it's not about having to love failure and uncertainty - it's about learning how to survive it and then let the act of surviving it build your confidence instead of tearing it down permanently (even if it does shake it for a while).

Failure curls me into a little ball on the stairs, in wracking sobs. Uncertainty makes me feel like I'm having a panic attack on the inside while moving in slow motion on the outside. 

Knowing that coming up against setbacks (and sometimes feeling terrible about it) is normal (and a required part of success) is what keeps me from giving up. Steps 1-3 are what keep me going forward.

When you do hit a wall, a setback, a failure, or a moment when you're almost paralyzed by the uncertainty of your future, know that it's okay if it makes you feel terrible. Talk to someone. Don't go through it alone. It's okay to cry. It's also okay to adjust your direction. Sometimes it's good to quit. The key is just not to give up on you. 

And be careful not to "avoid failure" so much so that you also avoid the kind of success that might mean the most to you, the kind of overachieving that you really dream of, the kind that is impossible without risk and uncertainty, the kind that might involve breaking a few rules (or being okay with a B...;)). 

"Success and failure are not two separate roads...success and failure are on the same road, just picture success farther down that road." - Dr. Cathy Collautt

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