Don’t Worry About Failure…Embrace It!

4 minute read

A member of a team I’ve been mentoring recently confided in me that he had decided it was time to move on and try working on another team. Amazon has a very friendly culture towards transferring internally between teams, so of course this wasn’t a problem. He had identified two potential teams and wanted my help choosing between them.

Team 1 is in a high-profile area, working on cutting edge technology that is pushing the field forward. It would be challenging and he would have a lot of responsibility and big projects to lead. Team 2 is a team in a well-established space with a more incremental charter. Team 2’s manager didn’t have a specific big project in mind for him and he would start out with smaller tasks and go from there.

He asked which team he should switch to. I said I knew which team I would choose, but it wasn’t my decision to make. After a bit more back and forth, it finally came out that he was more excited about Team 1, but he was worried that he might fail. He said, “What if I build a solution for a huge project and it doesn’t work?” He thought maybe he should go with Team 2 even though he was not as excited about it so he could gain more experience and see more examples of production software before working on a larger project.

I told him he had done great work for our team over the last few years and has shown the ability to learn quickly and grow. So if the only thing holding him back from going to Team 1 was a fear of failure, then he should absolutely go to Team 1! The challenge of Team 1 would lead to much faster personal growth and I wasn’t worried about his ability to tackle such a challenge.

I also showed him this wonderful quote, which he liked a lot:

In the end, he decided to go with Team 1. I was happy for him and wished him luck.

I think it’s so important not to let fear of failure hold you back. One of the most important and rewarding aspects of life is pursuing and achieving personal growth in whatever interests you. However this only comes from challenging your limits. When you’re forced beyond your comfort zone, you are guaranteed to struggle at times, but that’s ok! In fact, it’s more than ok. It’s a perfectly natural and normal part of learning.

A long time ago, a coach taught me that there are 4 stages to learning something new:

  1. You’re doing it wrong and you don’t know it.
  2. You’re doing it wrong and you know it
  3. You’re doing it right and you know it
  4. You’re doing it right and you don’t know it

In these stages, “it” can be any kind of personal growth or learning, be it a sport, a profession or being a good partner in a relationship. It also isn’t just something big like learning to be a good developer. That is a career path, which is a journey filled with many smaller “its” that need to be learned with these same stages.

The thing I love about these stages is that they’re simple, yet quite profound. In stage 1, you’re blissfully ignorant that there is something you need to improve upon. In stage 2, you become aware of your shortcoming, but cannot figure out how to overcome it. With enough thoughtful persistence, you’ll reach stage 3, where you finally figure it out, but it takes effort to do it each time. Then, at some point, you’ll realize you’re at stage 4 where you now do it without even consciously thinking about it.

To me, the critical stage is stage 2. If you’re pushing your limits, stage 2 is easily the most frustrating stage. When you’re making an honest effort to do something and it’s not working, it’s easy to look at those attempts as failures. It’s during this stage that you will start to get negative, defeatist thoughts in your head like, “I’m terrible at this!” or “I should have gotten this by now!” or “I’ll never get this!” or “Everyone else gets this except me!”

If you give too much weight to these thoughts, you’ll feel a strong urge to quit. However to me, the only true failure happens if you give in to these thoughts and decide to give up. Instead, be kind to yourself. Remind yourself that it’s ok to feel frustrated and this is a perfectly natural way to feel at this stage. Treat each failed attempt as a learning experience. What went wrong that time? What can I do differently next time? Being kind to yourself and treating setbacks as learning opportunities is key to getting through stage 2 and onto a path of positive personal growth. When you finally get to stage 3, acknowledge it and celebrate your accomplishment! Then keep going until you get to stage 4.

Hope this helps! What are your tips or tricks to getting through frustrating times in your career or personal life? Do you have a story of a time when you persisted and made it through something that seemed impossible at first?

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