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How High is Your Failure Threshold?

Updated: Dec 31, 2021

No matter how empathetic you are, it’s so much easier giving advice than it is being the receiver. I have told people countless times to embrace the learning that comes from failure. I’ve retweeted failure quotes and memes repeatedly. I have articulated how finding a bunch of ways NOT to do something is just one more step in finding the right way to do it. Before “failure” was one of the EDU buzzwords, I would tell my students that mistakes were fine as long as we learned from them and used that new knowledge in the future. We shouldn’t allow failure to scare us. When we fail and learn and move forward it brings us that much closer to success, and I truly believe all of that to the bottom of my professional soul. Really, honestly I do. I have never looked at someone who was legitimately trying and failed and thought, “Well, that was hopeless/stupid/ridiculous/fruitless/pathetic.”

Until now.

Recently, in a bout of intense reflection, I realized that professionally, I’ve never had anything but superficial failures because I have never put myself in the position of having anything else. I have begun adventures and activities that made me nervous at the time. Presenting, for example, was something that I was petrified of, but I started small, built up my confidence over time, and never forced myself to take a huge leap where I could have experienced a massive fail. Another example: putting myself out there with this blog. But really, when it came down to it, these reflections are, ultimately, for myself. What was the worst thing that could happen? Risks that I’ve taken have been relatively small in nature. Therefore, my failures were still valuable, but not something I didn’t know if I could move on from. They were shrug-your-shoulders failures. The “Oh well, it happened, now what?” type. My failure threshold was pretty low. I had never had a reason to raise it.

Once again, until now.

I recently put myself out there in a way that I never imagined I’d actually do. I had to develop a product that was based entirely on my own thinking. No one to blame and no one to credit. I was super proud of myself for even trying, and although what I came up with wasn’t exactly what I envisioned, I knew I’d have the chance to make tweaks and get it perfect with feedback from others. I told family and friends what I was attempting. I felt safe. I subsequently gave them updates on my project to the point where people would ask me how it was going. When I was partially finished and needed to get the stamp of approval, I was told it wouldn’t work. Not once, but twice, by two people I have a massive amount of respect for and absolutely value what they think of my work. I was crushed and angry and disappointed in myself. But that wasn’t even the worst of it.

People always show their true character in the moments when life gets really difficult. It’s not adversity itself that makes a person who they are, it’s how they react to the situation. Every reaction is a choice we make.

This is the part where my failure became exponentially worse. I had a long drive to think about what just happened, and I quickly decided the appropriate reaction to what had just happened would be to quit. For good measure, I even threw in there some significant amounts of self-pity and self-degradation. It lasted about two hours, which was the entire car ride. By the time I reached my destination, I was in tears just out of sheer anger at myself. I had finally experienced a massive professional failure, and my reaction was to immediately quit. Move on. Forget it happened. Hope everyone else would forget, too (ohhhhh, why did I TELL people?). I started thinking up excuses of what I would say when people asked. I was so embarrassed.

Finally, after really digging deep, there were two specific thoughts that pulled me out of my misery. The first was the fact that one of my most fundamental beliefs is that you should model the behavior you want to see, and I didn’t think I could ever look another colleague or student in the eye, or my own kids for that matter, and encourage them to “take risks” and “not be afraid to fail” when the first time I did, I quit without even a second thought. The level of hypocrisy would be almost painful. Second, one of my favorite quotes is:


I’ve worked my backside off all my life to be a strong, successful person. I didn’t feel it was time to stop now. Some people might see my immediate quitter reaction as a weakness. But, that particular weakness simply makes me human. I prefer to think of the fact that I was able to pull myself up and out, dust myself off and relentlessly move on, as a strength.

So, I’ve decided on another course of action with my idea. You may be mentally waiting for me to reveal what the idea was. I’m still not ready to blog about it quite yet, but it’s not because I’m still embarrassed I failed. Honestly, I’m still mourning the failure, mourning that my idea will not go off as I had hoped and planned. I feel it’s important to take a moment to do this on my own so that when I am successful, I can fully celebrate the alternative way I made it happen, however that might look.

I bought this plaque the other day because it is one of my favorite quotes.


If you knew you couldn’t fail, what would you try? But now, I’d change the wording a bit. Instead, I’d change it to “What would you try in spite of knowing that you might fail?” We all have a threshold of failure that we are comfortable with. What happens when we surpass that? The more we open ourselves up, the more likely we are to fail, and the higher the cost. But, should also make the subsequent success that much more rewarding, even if it’s not how we originally planned.



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