Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Permission to Fail

Earlier this week, Hope Jahren posted about how she got past imposter syndrome. As she clarified later in a tweet, it is a story, not a recipe. Still, it got me thinking. I think her fourth item is particularly powerful:

" I know that what I am is separate from what I know and how I perform."

If only I could really, truly believe that myself. I have been thinking a lot about giving myself permission to fail, and how, if I could successfully do that- really do that, not just say I'm going to do that- I'd be so much more likely to take the risks I'll have to take to pursue some of my bigger ambitions.

There is a career-related thing I'm considering doing right now, and if I'm going to do it, I really need to be OK with the idea that I might try it and fail. It is a big, audacious goal, and there is absolutely no way I can guarantee I can succeed. I've thought about how to de-risk it, and everything I come up with eviscerates the goal.

That is, by the way, my usual mode of action. I'll think of something big and possibly cool I could try, and then talk myself into doing something much smaller, telling myself that the small thing might grow into the original idea. But in most cases that is a convenient lie.

In this case, at least, I think I need to either go all in or not go in at all. I can think of ways to decrease the financial risk of failure, but I cannot decrease the embarrassment risk of failure, not if I want to have a chance to succeed.

So this is interesting, particularly coupled with my raging self-doubt. I honestly cannot predict what I'll do.

The other aspect is that if I decide to do this thing I'll probably need to step far outside my comfort zone in terms of marketing/self-promotion. Previously, that alone would probably have provided my nervous subconscious with enough ammunition to kill the idea, because "I'm no good at and don't like marketing."

Recently, though, I've discovered that I can do it if forced, and maybe not even mind it (too much). This is really not surprising, given the fact that I in general learn skills best only when I actually need them, i.e., when the lack of that skill is standing in my way of accomplishing something I want to do. This is why I never really took to programming as a kid or young adult, despite having a few chances to do so. I never needed it to get something done. In graduate school, I had a project I wanted to do and the only way I was going to do it was to learn to code, and so I learned what I needed to know.

Now, I find that I need to do some marketing to make Tungsten Hippo into what I want it to be. And so I'm learning marketing. It helps that in the intervening years, marketing has gotten a lot more about experimentation and data analysis and a lot less about glad-handing (or maybe I've just grown and discovered a different aspect of marketing). Regardless, I am currently working more on marketing Tungsten Hippo than on trying out tech-related things on the site.

Don't get me wrong: I completely suck at marketing right now. But I'm reading and learning and hopefully getting better.

This leads to the next interesting question: why am I OK with sucking at marketing Tungsten Hippo, but not at possibly sucking if I try my big career-related idea?

The answer is as simple as it is unflattering: ego. I have more of my self-worth invested in my career than in Tungsten Hippo. Tungsten Hippo is a fun little side project that I specifically created as a learning environment. My career? Well, it is a lot more than that to me. It is part of my identity.

Which brings me back to Hope Jahren's point #4. I need to really embrace the idea that I am not my career, and that I will be OK if I reach high and come up short.

I talk a lot about these things with Pumpkin, who has a wide perfectionist streak and a dislike of being seen to not know things. Perhaps it is time for me to start showing her what I mean.


  1. Anonymous6:36 AM

    If you don't fail from time to time, you're not aiming high enough.

  2. With writing, failure is kind of built into the structure of the job. There are lots of mini-failures. A lot of the ideas I pitch don't work out. The good thing about blogging is that I can float ideas and see what people leap on and what gets a giant digital shrug. In the latter case, probably shouldn't waste a year writing a book about it, you know?

  3. Don't underestimate what a huge motivator a fear of failure can be. In my first year of my own firm, I lost a A LOT of sleep worried about meeting payroll, and horrible clients, and I never got a vacation (still haven't, in fact) and omigod what have I done moments - I don't love my old job but it paid well and was pretty cushy and why did I leave it for this - and really, the only thing that kept me going sometimes was the fear of the embarrassment - of having to tell the naysayers that they were right. It's what drove me to make one more call, work one more hour, to do those extra things other people won't. Fear is my best friend in business.

  4. Toria4:47 PM

    I am right there with you Cloud, both in the egging up for a career leap (& potential Wyle. E. Coyote over the cliff prat-fall), and the trying to encourage my over-cautious perfectionist young child to just have a go and learn from failing and not take it to heart (despite accidentally modelling the opposite so far). Wishing you bravery.

  5. Know that we're here behind you and with our Twitter feeds. :) I don't know if you've read Quiet, but it describes how more introverted people can act like extroverts when they're working for things that are important to them. So, maybe, like Tungsten Hippo, when it's something that really matters to you, the marketing won't be as bad.

  6. I see younger scigineers come through my company and get discouraged and stressed so incredibly quickly. It's demoralizing to even watch their reactions. But once they succeed, the success feels even greater knowing the failures they overcame. The pride of success is infinitely greater when I know how it feels to fail. And ultimately, it's just a job...who cares?

  7. Thanks for the nice comments, everyone! @Jac, you are right that fear of can be a valuable motivator. I think there is a difference between fear that you overcome and fear that makes you not even try, though. I'm fighting the fear of failure that makes me not even try.

    For those working with perfectionist kids- the thing that helped Pumpkin the most recently was the Y summer camp, because it made her try a lot of different activities. I should write a post about that sometime!

  8. Anonymous1:23 PM

    We hear a lot about risks that leads to success but not as much about risks that lead to failures. I'm in the middle of one of those right now, and it has turned out to be worse than my worst fears. So I am a cautionary tale that not all risks pay off and sometimes you can be left much worst off than if you'd never done it.

    I guess if I have one lesson to impart, it's to make sure you are in control of your exit. I did not do that correctly (although I didn't realize that, so there's also a little of having to know what you're misunderstanding, which is not the easiest thing!).

    1. Anonymous6:03 AM

      I think we do hear a lot about failures... Mostly as cautionary tales. Or maybe I just read too many personal finance blogs.

      When taking risks, it is important to take measured risks. Like you say, control your exit. Limit liability. Insure up the wazoo. Have savings. Etc.

  9. Oh, Cloud.

    This speaks so much to me. Not because I'm exactly in your position--I don't need to take on any financial risk to pursue my dreams. But like you, I have so much difficulty separating who I am from "what I know and how I perform." One of the hardest things about leaving scientific research for me has been dealing with the loss of identity, because for so many years my identity was wrapped up in being a scientist.

    No specific advice on your situation. Just adding my voice to the chorus--that we in the blogosphere are listening and cheering you on in whatever you do!


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