Wisdom//

How I Learned to Honor Failure

I was always taught that I had to be twice as good to get half of what others have — but I found freedom at a job that wanted me to fail.

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Shutterstock

Growing up, I was taught that I have to be twice as good to get half of what others have. This was the beginning of my perfectionism.

This saying, which often permeates the walls of black homes taught me two things: 1. I need to work extra hard, and 2. I cannot mess up. A microscope was on me, as a black woman, to do things right and to do things well.

This became evident in all my professional roles. I felt that goals must be met, process must be followed, and vision must be executed seamlessly. I totally understood why — the work being done was important. As a marketing professional, communicating the wrong information to the public could lead to missed deadlines, unmet fundraising goals, and poor event attendance. As a resource development strategist, unmet fundraising goals meant major community programs would be cut; the most vulnerable populations wouldn’t be served. And as a student affairs practitioner, inaccurate academic records and a lack of student resources meant low retention rates and unfulfilled degrees.

All of these would be serious problems, but none of them are life-threatening.

My own desire to be perfect, and my previous jobs’ unwillingness to honor failure were a recipe for disaster — an anxiety-inducing, stressful disaster. So when I started my new job, I was completely shaken up by my supervisor’s excitement for failure.

During my final interview I was asked my thoughts on failure. Considering what I mentioned above, I responded honestly, “While I think it’s necessary, I’ve never been allowed the space to fail in the workplace.” The interviewer immediately shot back, “At this department, we honor failure. We want our team to fail so they can find a new solution. We want them to fail so they can learn something they never knew. And most importantly, we want our team to be okay with failure.”

Did this mean they had low expectations? No. It simply meant that they cared more about growth than they did about perfection.

I was excited about the possibility of working at a place that honored failure, but I didn’t realize how challenging it would be to release the strongholds of perfectionism and the fear of failure — even at a place that welcomed it.

I started the new position with anxiety from my last job. I was worried that I wouldn’t do things right, stressed that I’d mess everything up, and dabbling heavily in impostor syndrome. My supervisor continued to assure me that she didn’t care about failure, she cared about me not learning something from it.

“If you fail and don’t learn anything, that’s when we’ll have a problem,” she said. And that’s when it stuck for me.

Failure isn’t a destination, nor is it an end. It’s a lesson — a redirection.

Whether I wanted to acknowledge this or not, I’d been failing at things all my life. I’ve had failed friendships that led me closer to myself. A failed bank account taught me how to properly save. Failed relationships led me closer to the man of my dreams. Failed job experiences better equipped me to handle difficulty and toxicity in the workplace. Failed side hustles reminded me — graciously — what I am and am not good at.  

All my failures served as lessons to position me for something greater. They all taught me something new, and helped me get clearer about my expectations and goals. They all shaped me. They taught me a different way to approach the same problem. They helped me to identify multiple solutions, and taught me how to choose the best one. They taught me self-advocacy and how to use my voice in meaningful ways. They guided me toward strategy. And they even helped me figure out how to overcome hardship and adversity.

Failure isn’t all bad, and I’m learning that each day. So instead of being afraid of it, perhaps it’s time we start welcoming it. Perhaps it’s time we recognize that much like success, there is purpose in failure too. And perhaps we learn to use failure to become our best selves.

When my supervisor said, “We honor failure here,” she allowed me the space and freedom I always longed to have at work — one where creativity and trust reigns, where success and failure are self-defined, and where people know the world isn’t ending if something isn’t “right.” This workplace is one where, despite being a black woman who has to work twice as hard to get half of what others have, I am allowed the same grace as everyone else.  

Originally written for, and published on, xoNecole.


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