About this episode
In this episode, Jessica and Bob discuss the idea of “celebrating failure.” While we know a healthy attitude towards failure can make us more innovative, failing still feels bad. How can we deal with those feelings and develop a practice helps us deal with failure? Jessica and Bob share some of their ideas.
Special thanks to Nathan Grimm, who composed all of the music for the podcast; Kalin Goble, who recorded the episode introduction; Jen Chilek, for her help with our podcast website; and Hannah Hyde and Terry Meisenbach for all their help with marketing.
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- Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer
Kalin Goble: Welcome to Practicing Connection in a Complex World, a podcast exploring the personal stories and collective practices that empower us to work together to help each other, our families, and our communities and prove our resilience and readiness in a rapidly changing world. To start the conversation, here are Jessica Beckendorf and Bob Bertsch.
Bob Bertsch: Hey everybody. Thanks for joining us for the Practicing Connection in a Complex World podcast for the first episode of our second season. It’s hard to believe that we’re into the second season already, Jessica.
Jessica Beckendorf: Yes, it really is. We just ended season one in December and we thought we had this big break in-between the seasons, but it really wasn’t, and I’m excited about that. We spent a lot of time thinking about season two and planning out some of the topics and I’m really excited to get going with it.
Bob: Today we’re going to talk a little bit about practicing I think, but also about failure. You and I were having a conversation about this idea that’s out there and I’ve heard a lot in innovation spaces about celebrating failure. That’s how we get into innovative organizations is to celebrate failure. I even had an acquaintance who referred to “flearning”, which is learning from failure. How’s that for a catchphrase? There’s a got to be a new business book out there somewhere, right? I give whoever permission if you want to write the next business book, you can call it “Flearning”. You don’t even have to credit me. We thought we’d talk about that because I think it is not as simple as it sounds.
Jessica: There’s a couple of exercises that I’ve used when I’ve done some improv workshops for leaders. One of them literally is having people think about a time that they failed. Just think about a time you failed and that sounds really awful because nobody wants to remember those times, but we all have moments that we can think back to. Then you are supposed to just walk around the room looking everyone in the eyes and saying things like, “Wo-hoo, I failed,” and then everyone cheers you on and you’re high-fiving and doing all kinds of things. What that exercise is meant to do is help you move on beyond that feeling and that moment of failure and create a culture that’s more receptive to it. It’s still, I think, an overly simplified example of what you just said that we talk about it and I think we say a lot of times you should learn from failure, you should celebrate failure, but what does it really mean to do that?
Bob: I like the example from improvisation. I’m glad you brought up improvisation because I think that’s the situation where the whole idea of doing the work in improvisation is about embracing failure and letting things go where they’re going to go. Most of our work isn’t structured that way. We have finite projects. It’s not maybe as flowy if that’s a word. I’m coming up with words today. We’ve got “flearning” and “flowy”. We’ll have to include a glossary with this episode.
Jessica: They’re both F-words too.
Bob: That’s right. I’ll try and control the F-words just in case. We don’t necessarily work on the same kind of flow. We have finite projects. We might have measurables for them and you may or may not reach the measurables and you may not be on time which is a big measurable that almost every project in the workplace has. It can’t really become part of the culture. I think that’s why sometimes when we talk about celebrating failure, it feels a little inauthentic because it is a little bit more like what the exercise was about, which is just like, “Hey, look, this project failed spectacularly, woo-hoo.” What are you supposed to do with that? How are you supposed to celebrate that? Trying to be in a place where you can embrace it I think is what it’s about. It’s about letting things go where they’re going to go even if that means that things aren’t going to work out the way that you expected, and maybe in that sense then failure’s the wrong word. [music]
Jessica: I think a really big part of being able to let things go a little bit, and adjust and adapt as you go along has a lot to do with being able to be in the moment. Earlier when I mentioned that improv activity, I’m not trying to make this all about improv skills, but it’s another skill that improvisers are taught all the time, is really being in the moment and listening to what’s going on around you. Listening to your team, listening to what the conditions are, and being constantly aware of what’s happening.
It’s really interesting, we’re moving forward at breakneck pace often, and then we come up against a little mistake, misstep, whatever you want to call it, we come up against something, and it seems like along the way, if we sometimes have been a little more aware, I’m not saying that the mistake still wouldn’t have happened, but it would have been easier to adapt. I think sometimes we’ll come up to that mistake and we’ll just feel all kinds of bad about ourselves. [chuckles]
We’ll feel all kinds of bad about the whole situation, where we may have been able to adapt or at least take a look at the situation and adapt to the mistake that happened or adapt to what happened if we could widen our awareness a little bit as to what’s happening in the moment. I don’t know if that makes sense to you, Bob, but that’s something I’ve noticed. There’s still going to be mistakes even if you have a wonderful awareness and you’re always living in the moment. Yet, I feel like that skill helps us to be able to adapt when there is a mistake or failure, whatever, of “flearning”. [laughs]
Bob: Yes, whatever that is and whatever it feels like. I’m really glad that you brought up this idea of mindfulness because I think if we are embracing the moment, then we get into potentially a space where we’re not even thinking of it as a failure. That moment of failure is just another moment of uncertainty. When we’ve done some work on networking and how networking can help us address complex issues and complexity in general, that’s one of the things that we talk about. In order to get comfortable with complexity, you have to be comfortable with uncertainty. You have to be okay with- “Hey, things are going to change.” The environment’s going to change, technology’s going to change, people’s reactions are going to change, the people in the room are going to change.
All of that stuff is going to affect your work in different ways, and being able to ride that wave and be okay with that change is important. Part of that is being able to embrace the moment, to listen, and be aware of the moment, and be okay with that. I think what goes along with that, we’re going down the mindfulness path here a little bit, is also to be okay with the feelings that go along with failure.
Bob: I think that’s what maybe sometimes feels inauthentic to me about the off-handed comment of, “We should celebrate our failures,” is yes, but they don’t feel very good. [chuckles]
Jessica: They feel awful.
Bob: Yes, they awful. I’m supposed to push that down and go, “Yay, I failed”? That wouldn’t be a very good mindfulness strategy, to do that instead of have to feel it and be okay with those feelings, and get to the next moment which gets to the adaptation that you’re talking about. It’s the “So what? So what we failed?” It doesn’t feel very good, but what’s next, or what does that failure or that unexpected uncertain moment open up in terms of possibilities for adaptation?[music]
Jennifer Chilek: I’m Jen Chilek from the Military Families Army Network. We bring you online professional development opportunities, like this podcast, along with webinars, conferences, and more, in support of those who support military families. Geared to Cooperative Extension educators, military families’ service providers, and others who support military families, much of our online content comes with continuing education credit, and all of it is free. Visit us at militaryfamilieslearningnetwork.org to find more content like this, geared to people like you.
Jessica: Bob, I’d like to put you on the spot just for a second. I’m curious, do you have any practices that help you navigate those feelings, or help you navigate that initial moment when something happens, you have some sort of reaction to it? Do you have some practices, and if you don’t, just-
Bob: I don’t have anything specific really. The practice or what I’ve been trying to practice is having a good meditation practice because I think a lot of meditation teaching is about mindfulness and being in the moment and being okay with things and just feeling your feet on the ground. I think cribbing from some other meditation teachers, that could be a practice. When you’re feeling that, feel it, or focus on the contact of your feet on the ground. That’s been really meaningful to me in another part of my learning.
Recently, I’ve been reading a book called Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer that’s about indigenous wisdom and scientific knowledge and the environment and ecology, and it’s a beautiful book, but this idea of being- as a human, feeling part of the natural world, and part of the earth, and part of a network of beings, and things like that. You could tell when I say, “and things like that,” I’m not really clear what I’m saying, and I’m also probably getting into territory that makes me a little bit uncomfortable.
Feeling part of that is a perspective shift. It becomes mindfulness. To spread it out further, if you’re part of the universe, or you’re just one part of the living world, your momentary failure, this is not meant to negate whatever feelings you might have about that of sadness, or loss, or embarrassment, or whatever that failure has caused, those feelings are still valid, but it is just one tiny part of a whole network of living beings, or one small part of all the moments that you’re going to experience in your life. Hopefully, that helps that idea to remind yourself that you’re part of that, by feeling your feet on the ground, or your butt in the seat, or just feeling physically that your-
Jessica: Toes in the sand.
Bob: Toes in the sand, yes. Feeling physically what you’re a part of is a tiny reminder to me that, “Hey, this is just one tiny thing in a big, big world that I’m a part of, or my entire life, or career, or whatever,” and we’ll get past it. There’ll be the next moment. It’s going to come, whether you want it to or not. Something else is going to happen, and that’s a new opportunity for a different outcome than maybe what you got before.
Jessica: I’m realizing now as we’re talking a little bit about the connection between having a growth mindset and being mindful and even a mindfulness practice, I’m realizing now that even taking a step back from all of that, and thinking about how I also see understanding even what you’re feeling in the moment is super important. I’m seeing all of this stuff swirling around as very connected to this. I’m not sure that I ever thought of it as being connected to growth mindset before, but there is– When you have a mistake, when you make a mistake, or when you have had some sort of thing that you’ve deemed as a failure, I’m going to put it that way, that you have deemed as a failure, there are a lot of feelings that happen in that moment. I’m a person that until I started to do a lot of work on even understanding my feelings and what I’m feeling in the moment, I would immediately just know that I was feeling bad. I would label my feeling as bad and I would try to get away from that as quickly as possible. I guess what I’m saying is that the practices that I’ve put into place actually started with me even just acknowledging which feeling I was having in that moment.
Am I embarrassed? Am I sad? What is that feeling that I have? Then, rather than running away from it, because that’s my typical way of getting away from a feeling that’s bad, I stopped labeling that as a bad feeling. I just labeled it as what the feeling actually was. Now I feel like I can sit with it a little bit. I think that that’s a hard concept. When I first started to hear people say, “Lean into your feelings,” stuff like that, I didn’t understand it.
Now I guess I get it because, to me, it was about not labeling the feeling as bad anymore and just labeling it as, “Okay, I feel embarrassed.” Now I feel like I even have a language. I can talk to somebody about it and say, “I feel really embarrassed about X.” It helps me accept that feeling and move through it, and then I can be more mindful. Does that make sense to you? I’ve worked through this as we’re talking.
Bob: It totally does. I love that you brought up the idea of having a vocabulary to talk about it because I think that’s the next step. I was thinking about how this can be helpful or what are practical applications. I think when we’re talking about the– There is that personal practice. That is practical to be able to move on from a failure, to embrace the feelings around a failure. That’s definitely practical, but when we get out into the workplace, a lot of times our failures are not- they don’t happen in isolation. There’s other people, team members or clients, or bosses that are part of that in some way.
That vocabulary I think is important because, to me, that’s sort of the next step, is that when I mess something up, that’s probably not the best way to put it in our conversation about healthy failure, but when there’s a mistake or I fail at something I have to deal with it personally, but then how do you deal with it in a social aspect with your colleagues? Maybe the project’s off a little bit now because of the failure or–
That idea of being able to have that vocabulary about how you’re feeling I think helps us to deal with failure as a team or in groups because then we can talk about it in a vulnerable way and not fall into the finger-pointing or blaming or just not saying anything about it like, “I messed this up, I’m going to go home and work all night and through the weekend to fix it. Hopefully, no one will notice that I messed it up.” Those kinds of things that might not be so healthy. They’re not good examples of celebrating or embracing failure. We avoid those by being able to be vulnerable and have a vocabulary to talk about, not just the failure, but how we feel about it.
Jessica: Sometimes a failure or a mistake or something actually ends up being a missed opportunity in that it’s not something that you can work 80 hours that week to make up for. Sometimes something happens, you miss a deadline and you can’t go back and try to fix that because the deadline was a hard deadline. It wasn’t an internal deadline, it was an external deadline for a grant or– I’ll give a simple example of a public notice. I used to work at a city hall, and one of the things we would do is there was a group of three or four of us that one of us would create an agenda that had to have public posting 30 days beforehand. Otherwise, you couldn’t hold the meeting. All of us would look at it and read it through. Even after all of us combed through it, occasionally, there was still a mistake. Then we’d get down to that meeting. We’d realize that there was a mistake, we can’t hold the meeting, the person has to wait another 30 days for the proposal to go through. That’s not a tragic mistake. In that case, that was definitely a missed opportunity.
I say all of this to say that I think this is a really good opportunity to share a little bit about why we’re talking about this today and what some of the lessons that I’ve learned have been. I love that you talked a little bit about what you might do, how you might react when there’s been a mistake made because in recording this podcast, we were originally planning on releasing this February 1st. We were going to release our first episode, and we were really excited about it.
We had gotten in touch with two amazing women that were going to talk to us about stress and networks and how your networks can help relieve some of your stress. We are still going to be talking with them. I recorded this lovely conversation, we had a wonderful time, and then the recording didn’t work. It wasn’t necessarily a mistake that I had made, but it certainly still felt like a failure. I knew I didn’t do anything wrong too. The reason why this failed was not because I did something wrong, but I definitely still felt this feeling in the pit of my stomach. I was devastated.
I didn’t want to go back to our guests and say, “Hey, would you have another conversation with us?” Even though I was reasonably confident that they would be willing to do that, I felt like I had used up a bunch of their time, and now I was going to ask them for even more time, and we don’t have any money that we’re paying our speakers. All of these things are going through my head.
That was done on a Thursday. I knew I was having trouble that night, like late that night, and I didn’t tell anyone about it because I just kept working on it every day throughout the weekend to see if I could make it work. It wasn’t until the following week that I finally said something to you, and I said something to Nava and Ziva, who everyone will meet in another episode. It took me almost a week, and it’s because of exactly what you’re saying. Sometimes what you end up doing is, you might have a language for how you’re feeling, but you still might not choose to use it.
I have a language. I was embarrassed. I was devastated. I felt a little silly because it was a technical issue, and I feel generally technically savvy, so it was a little embarrassing that something had happened, technology-wise, and just having all of these feelings, it kept me from saying anything right away. I thought about it many times. The day after I thought about saying something to all of you. I had a language and I still chose not to use it because I was so embarrassed. I’m realizing now that I was not sitting with that feeling. Like I just said, normally now, I feel like I can sit with that feeling. I needed a little more time in order for me to feel like I could say something about it.
Bob: When you shared that, I felt terrible for you, and I shared a similar story where I’ve done the same thing. I thought that I recorded something. My show was about a one opportunity face-to-face recording for a podcast, a different podcast that I used to do, that it just didn’t work. The technology didn’t work, and it’s embarrassing. You’re thinking about all the feelings. I think, especially, we’ve said embarrassment a couple of times now, that’s really something that is not necessarily about- that’s about feeling judged by other people or potentially judged by other people. John Stepper has said this before about making up- we make up stories in our heads. He’s not the first person obviously to say that, but I’m reminded of his work because he’s talking about it in the context of network building and saying if you reach out to someone and say, “Hey, I’d love to work with you,” or maybe you met someone the first time you had a great conversation and you follow up with an email and say, “Hey, let’s get together again,” and then nothing happens, you never hear back, he says sometimes we make up all the reasons in our heads, “Oh, I guess it wasn’t as good a conversation as I thought. I guess that person didn’t really like me and they must not really like my work. They must’ve just been pretending,” and all that kind of stuff. It might turn out–
Jessica: Have you been in my head? I’m just wondering. [laughs]
Bob: It might turn out that that person just is busy or forgot or has been looking frantically for your email address and can’t find it or something. There could be a million reasons. I think it’s the same thing when we’re thinking about these failures. It’s hard not to get caught up especially in the example- the stories that you and I shared of what are they going to think? What are other people going to think?
I think a lot of times what we find out is, hey, other people, they’re humans, if they admit they are. Guess what? They’ve made tons of mistakes too. That’s usually been my experience. When I can get to the point of being vulnerable and okay with it and sharing the mistakes with other people, they’re like, “Oh, you think that’s a big mistake?” It turns into a contest, who’s got the biggest mistake.
We’ve all made mistakes. I think that idea gets back to the connectivity. If we can be in teams, and we can’t always be in teams or work situations that are like this, I completely realize that, but if we can develop a practice ourselves and work with the people that we’re working with to model that and to give other people grace in the workspace and be forgiving, I think then you can get to that spot where we can feel okay with mistakes and feel okay with failure because we can share it and everybody can prop each other up. Anyway, I’m rambling now, I think
Jessica: I think it’s great. I think I hear three additional practices. We’ve already mentioned maybe a little bit of mindfulness, a little bit of exploring what you’re actually feeling, but I also see connecting with somebody to share. Once you’ve realized what’s going on, how you’re feeling by connecting with someone that you can share with because when I connected with you and I needed to connect with you, because this is our podcast and [laughs] we didn’t have an episode like I thought we were going to, when I connected with you and I shared what had happened, you shared that story with me, first of all, it just took all of that embarrassment away from me, not totally away, but it took it away in that I felt like it was okay.
I remember you sharing with me, sometimes it ends up being a blessing in disguise and I’m like, “Oh, well, that’s really interesting,” because I remember how nervous I was to do that interview. I’m like, “Hey, if they agree to talk with us again, I’m not going to be as nervous this time. I know that for sure because I’ve already done it. This will be the second time I’m doing it with the same people.” Then it gave me a little bit of confidence, being able to think through it that way, Bob, gave me some of the confidence to then go and share with our guests that, “Hey, by the way, I had some trouble and I’m not sure we’re going to be able to recover it. Would you be willing to talk with us again?” Not only were they willing, but they’re like, “I think this could be great.” They shared a couple of things with me that maybe it’s a relief because I wish I had thought about it later and I wish I would’ve said this, and I wish I would’ve shared this other story instead. They also saw it as a potential blessing in disguise and I’m so grateful to them for that. There’s the practice of– I don’t mean to keep summarizing this, but I’m seeing a lot of practices here. Acknowledging our feelings, engaging in a little bit of mindfulness or mindful activity, and connecting with somebody who you can at least talk to, if not, maybe they’re not in this situation or maybe they are. Then talking to the people who you need to talk to about it and having some gratitude for the whole process of what happened. Maybe it wouldn’t be the same thing, but in this case, they said, “Sure, we’re happy to record with you guys again.” Maybe it wouldn’t work out the same way, but when you think through all these different points along that journey that you went through, there’s going to be something in there to be grateful for. That’s what I was seeing throughout as we’ve been talking about it. I was looking at those as a set of practices for cultivating a growth mindset.
Bob: I think those are great. I think they’re similar to what we would say to anybody who’s trying to practice resilience which I think is part of what we’re doing here is to have some perspective. It’s a good resilience practice, have a friend to talk to. That’s a good resilience practice.
The other thing that I’m reminded of about what’s possible because I was thinking that too, that we have these stories that where the failure led to a new opportunity in a really obvious, positive way, but that’s not always the case. It puts me in mind of something that Robin Wall Kimmerer points out in Braiding Sweetgrass, top of mind obviously since it’s the second time I’ve referenced it, she talks about how in a lot of indigenous cultures, they don’t see time as a river. They see time as a lake. That really speaks to this idea of the opportunity might not be super apparent, but no matter what the failure is, even if it seems like it’s had a negative outcome, it has opened up different opportunities.
We’ve changed something in the formula because we didn’t do it the way that we expected to do it. We didn’t get the exact outcome that we expected to get. Even if that’s a negative, it’s not a spot in the river that the water has already rushed by that we can’t get back to. It’s a point in the lake in which all the potentials, all the possible futures are already connected and existing.
To me, that perspective can really help us not deal with failure, but also celebrate it in a way that something new has happened. It might be viewed by our culture or the world or whatever as a negative outcome, but it has opened another door to a different possible future.
Jessica: Thanks so much for joining us for this episode of Practicing Connection in a Complex World. Bob and I would also like to thank our announcer Kalin Goble, Hannah Hyde, and Terry Meisenbach for helping us with promotion and Nathan Grim for composing and performing all the music you hear on the podcast. Finally, special thanks to Naava Frank and Ziva Mann, our gracious guests whose voices you will hear in the future episode.
Bob: If you’d like to learn more about the Practicing Connection podcast, check out the show notes for this episode and a lot of other information about the podcast. You can find it on the Military Families Learning Network website at militaryfamilieslearningnetwork.org. Just click the podcast button and then Practicing Connection in a Complex World. Thanks again for joining us. Keep practicing.[music]