How often do we allow endings to color the interpretation of an experience? How often do we narrow options by focusing on failure, whether or not it applies, rather than all we have learned before an experience ends? Are women more likely to practice this potentially self-determining bias, especially with regard to their own lives?
In pondering the issues of language usage, perception, and recent consideration of women selectively speaking up, I thought long and hard on the way we use the term failure.
For example, how often do we say “I failed at marriage” – disregarding the many years that our unions might be termed a success? I rarely if ever use that expression when referring to my own marriage, despite the fact that I am divorced.
Instead, when describing what went awry in the relationship, I might say that our communication was lacking, we spent insufficient time together, and core values were less in synch than I once thought. These are factors that posed problems, and provided essential lessons that I have carried into subsequent relationships – both personal and professional.
In my corporate life, I see clear wins on many dimensions: revenues generated; market share increased; long-term referenceable customers; projects delivered at superior levels of quality; innovation; wonderful working relationships.
I see misses (not failures), where efforts were not optimally channeled, resource challenges went unmet, or communication did not accomplish its goals. In the case of these misses, generally, I see lessons. And I see these lessons in part because my focus is on the beginning as well as the middle of the experience – its guts and substance – not solely how it ended.
Beginnings certainly help set the stage: good first impressions start us off well, organization and clarity of goals provide structure and momentum, and a pleasant or productive start offers a positive experience to reinforce motivation. This last is especially important when the going gets tough – on a project, in the office, or in a relationship.
But the months or years that follow our earliest beginnings are where my interest truly lies: the quality of building and solidifying foundations; constructing products, services, reputation and trust; sharing common goals and experiences – including obstacles and how we manage them, and yes, failures along the way. I will add that I enjoy the experience or process involved, in both petsonal and professional realms. That enjoyment is one of my critical success factors.
I am not saying that failure doesn’t occur, or that we shouldn’t face it when it does. However, our emphasis, overuse of the concept, and its interpretation are askew.
Incidentally, here is the definition of failure:
… omission of occurrence or performance… of an expected action; a deficiency; lack of success…
The subtleties in the definition are evident. A failure to meet a publishing deadline or to be accepted at Princeton is clear cut; a “deficiency” is ambiguous unless we add context; “lack of success,” even more so. Does this mean we need to turn our definitions of success around – at least in some circumstances, where it isn’t about the finish line, but it is about the race, or possibly achieving a milestone?
What if women stopped beating themselves up over what doesn’t work out?
What if we viewed endings more reasonably, and shifted focus to what went right in our beginnings and middles?
What if we ceased using the term failure for ourselves so often, which is effectively a form of self-sabotage?
It may seem like “happy talk” to turn the term deficiencies around, and present them instead as opportunities. Yet in many cases, isn’t this the absolute best thing we could possibly do?
As a firm believer in the power of language to reshape perception and behavior, I know the extent to which the words I use, including in my inner dialog, impact attitude, enjoyment, and output. When I quell my own critical voice, replacing it with a more reasonable one, I am encouraged to persevere when challenges present themselves.
If we attempt anything of value, we risk failure. If we do not risk achievement, if we do not risk extending ourselves for something we want, if we do not risk challenging our capacities – in my opinion – that is the true failure.
I believe that women must eliminate the damning nature of the “failure” label for ventures that do not live up to expectations. And by giving beginnings and middles the consideration they deserve, it becomes easier to do so.
Shouldn’t we give this a try?
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