Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.

Robert F. Kennedy

I used to call myself a perfectionist. But then, I realized that my motivation to polish every task to a perfect shiny picture of what I had in mind was because I was afraid of what others might think of it. Afraid of feedback, of making mistakes. Afraid to fail?

Here is my story on how I learned how to fail like a pro.

Ripple Dissolve to: Twelve years ago.

I am an art director, and I am so stressed. I feel the pressure coming from all sides. My boss, colleagues, the pressure I put on myself is the worst. Damn you, Impostor Syndrome! Even though I have the skills and experience to do my job perfectly well, I fear I will make mistakes. I double-check everything; I am not transparent with my team, I overthink every detail. I fear being judged,  making a bad call, looking stupid, and not being liked. Until a point at which the pressure is so intense, my body breaks. Like a car breaking and coming to a complete stop. As I am taking my dog on his morning walk, before getting to work, my legs start feeling stiff and heavy, like walking in wet concrete up to the waist.

I brought the pup home. Sit for a minute. I think to myself. ‘’Shake it off. ‘’I have things to do, I got to get to work, I am essential, I am so God smack essential!’’ I left for work but could not reach the corner of the street before feeling the pressure back with triple the force as before. I could barely walk.

I crawl back home. Call in sick. 

That’s it, ‘’I have a degenerative disease, I’ll end up in a wheelchair’’. Will I ever walk? What if it spreads? What if I can’t have sex anymore? Or swipe my ass? I don’t know which is worse. What if I cannot talk? I love talking! Could I get one of those robot voices to speak my mind? Will I be able to choose my voice too? I would like to choose Morgan Freeman. His voice would make me sound more intelligent. Running out of anxiety fuelled ideas, I take the bus to the nearest hospital. If I don’t explain what is up with me, I might as well have a panic-induced heart attack.

Fast-forward to a few blood samples later. A doctor comes back with a concerned look on his face. My level of creatine kinase (CPK) is off the charts. The reference range is set between 60 to 400 UL/L (unit per liter). Mine is at 30,000! Like, do I get a price or something? Can I get into the Guinness Book of World Records? The doctor says the only price I win is potential kidney failure, so they hook me on a water solution to keep me hydrated, and they put me in a cozy shared room (emphasis on ‘’shared’’). Three nights and a dozen blood samples later, my case is a pure mystery, and I am released. 

After a few days of rest, it went away—the only medical explanation: a virus. 

Huh!

After a ten-day absence, I am back at work; I felt like returning from a long (still) journey. As I stared, wide-eyed at my empty screen, I started reflecting on what could have caused my mysterious illness. And then, just like that, it hit me: 

I will fail.

That was such a simple certainty. I will fail. And not only once, numerous times, sometimes a little bit and sometimes in the most ‘’plane-full-of-screaming-passengers-burning-down-to-the-ground’’ kind of way. The heaviest weight lifted off my shoulders.

In the absence of a proven medical diagnostic, I chose to believe that my self-inflicted pressure never to fail brought me down to a complete stop. With this idea lifted, I could finally move forward and show progress.

When we give ourselves permission to fail, we, at the same time, give ourselves permission to excel.

Eloise Ristad

I then embraced every failure as a perfect way to learn and get more effective. The following years were very fruitful. I move up the studio ladder, from art director to project manager, producer, and exec producer. Trying, failing, learning, and moving on.

RIPPLE DISSOLVE TO: A few weeks ago.

One of my clients gave me a task that seemed simple. Yet, I did not deliver the goods. I misunderstood the objectives and the timeline. I underestimated the expectations of my client. It stung!

After my client shared his dissatisfaction, I jumped on the gun and took the blow. I made a solid and assertive promise: I will fix the situation! My intentions were pure but probably more motivated by a desire to please than an honest assessment of my capacity. My ego was hurt, and I did not (once again) make sure to understand the objectives and timeline. I got afraid to look weak, incompetent so I did not ask clarifying questions. I am an expert, after all! Then, I got busy and distracted by other more or less important tasks, and the thought of this promise faded in the sunset.

I broke my word. I omitted to deliver the expected and required action.

I did not realize that as I was gaining on confidence and experience, my mistakes became less noticeable, and I also became better at ‘’explaining/giving excuses for’’ them. I guess that is a downfall for being good at building a solid argument. The issue is, it’s not because you win an argument that makes total sense that it is true. My failing muscle fell out of shape. 

And now, I feel sore as hell.

When we are afraid to fail, we overcompensate our lack of confidence by being protective and going into a significant level of minutia and perfection. This is not where the focus should be. We should focus on making a clear plan transparent to you, and the other parties involved so expectations are well managed and mini-mistake are caught rapidly before they become an epic failure.

  • Before starting any project or task, would it be given by yourself or somebody else, you have to clarify the following:
    • What is the purpose? What is the end goal I wish to achieve?
    • How many resources do I have? Time, money, people?
    • Don’t be afraid to ask clarifying questions. This list has to be clear and actionable.
    • Write everything down. Your brain is an idea machine, not a storage facility. By listing all objectives, time, and resources, you have a clear roadmap of what has to be achieved.
    • Validate this list with your client/manager/boss and yourself.
    • Keep in mind; a plan is a direction, not a destination. So make sure to re-calibrate as you go.
    • Keep your client/manager/boss and yourself in the loop of every change.
    • Focus on the task and do constant checks up to ensure satisfaction and make mini adjustments based on feedback rather than getting struck after realizing long after you failed. Transparency is the best way to minimize the impact of a potential failure.

Be ready to screw up. Be happy when you do.

When you will fail again, feel the sting and take some time to properly reassess the situation, evaluate your options, communicate the mistake as soon as possible and propose a solution. 

As reminded by my latest failure, I felt overly comfortable and in control; armed with my sharp self-awareness, I let my guard down. Thank you, failure. Lesson learned. I am looking forward to next time. I wonder what I will learn then.

Feel free to share a story about your most memorable fail. I’d love to learn from it.

Lp