Thursday, May 20, 2010

Overcoming the Overwhelming Fear of Failure (psst... it requires falling flat on your face first)

I recently discovered the design groups and subsequent discussions on LinkedIn. I love them and parusing new topics is becoming a part of my daily ritual. Kudos to LinkedIn for engaging me professionally in a way that Fb has socially.
Yesterday, on Communication Arts group, I discovered a discussion by Jarod Matthew Kessler referencing a blog article called "The Stigma of Being Unsucessful," and responded with the following on that discussion thread as a realization of the past few months in becoming okay (dare I say, comfortable) with failure.
  • "Great read... aren't we all on the edge of crumbling and trying just to keep it together long enough until we get home -- so no one else will see that we're just as lost and trying to figure it all out, too?

    A designer friend and I were just discussing this over lunch yesterday. We're very similar personally and professionally. We both had perfectionist tendencies and an overwhelming fear of failure -- as designers, those are probably the two biggest things that have caused us to lament the day we stepped into the field for the first five years of our careers.

    This past winter, we both left our full-time jobs for agencies to start our own individual freelance businesses -- giving up the comfort and security of a permanent position (that we both respectively hated and that had driven us to the point of burn-out). We both also went into our respective freak-out periods of self-discovery and life/career questioning about two months later. What had we done? What kind of mistakes had we made leaving a full-time gig to try to scrap by on our own? What if we can't do this? What if we lose everything? What will everyone think when they find out? What if we have to crawl back to the old positions? What really happens when you don't pay your bills?

    Through those really tough experiences, we both came out the other side as much more confident, fearless and mature people personally and as designers professionally. Instead of being afraid of making mistakes -- and trying at all costs to avoid making them -- we both realized that mistakes are going to happen and it's not the end of the world, the end of our lives or the end of our careers when we make them (though it can still feel like it is the end for a while). We're both much less apologetic for who we are and much more bold and decisive when faced with a problem or decision (without second guessing afterward).

    The only differences in our paths have been the outcomes 6-months after initially leaving those full-time gigs. She's a very successful full-time freelance designer and I've picked up a full-time in-house marketing position while I do freelance as a supplemental income (and creative outlet). Neither are wrong or mistakes... just good fits for our personalities and working styles.

    Very encouraging to read that there are other professionals out there comfortable enough with themselves to share similar experiences and realizations. Thanks again for posting!"
When I was about at my lowest point earlier this year (January and February were personally hell for me because I had lost purpose/direction for my career and life + being snowed in for a month in Pgh didn't help), I thankfully came across an article in Reader's Digest (as luck would have it) summarizing new research to suggest that 1) failure physically makes our brains stronger; and 2) your mind-set (growth vs. fixed) is the key to finding success.
From there, I dove into more research by Dr. Dweck on her mindset theories and made some important self-discovers about my own fixed-mindset -- a another term for being a perfectionist.... not really a new idea or realization. More importantly, I came to a point of peace toward all the people who had unknowingly helped shape who I am today and with that knowledge was able to start recognizing when I was exercising that fixed-mindset (with all it's unrealistic expectations), to counter it and be a little more willing to fail in order to figure something out.
  • Mindset Online: Book Supplement by Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D's

    Particularly the page on how well-meaning parents, teachers and coaches have done number on creating a fixed-mindset in most of our generation.
    If you’re like most parents, you hear these as supportive, esteem-boosting messages.
    “You learned that so quickly! You’re so smart!”
    “Look at that drawing. Martha, is he the next Picasso or what?”
    “You’re so brilliant, you got an A without even studying!”

    But listen more closely. See if you can hear another message. It’s the ones that children hear:
    “If I don’t learn something quickly, I’m not smart.”
    “I shouldn’t try drawing anything hard or they’ll see I’m no Picasso.”
    “I’d better quit studying or they won’t think I’m brilliant.”

I hope that these resources are as helpful to all my fellow designers (as quirky and escentric as we all are) in helping to face and accept failure in their lives, businesses and designs -- and reap all the freedom that comes from allowing yourself to not-be-perfect.


  1. Good stuff Stephie! I wrote something awhile ago that is on the same subject!!

  2. Nice... I do remember reading that a while ago and it rings just as true today.

    We do have similar personalities, my friend. Thankfully, I've seen growth in both of our lives over the last five years as we figure out how to deal with our tendencies and brains -- that are secretly trying to bring about our untimely demises, stupid brains:)