How to failure-proof yourself

posted in: How to be fearless | 2

This Sunday morning I received the second best email of my life. It read:

“Dear Rebecca, many thanks for your note. We would love to feature your voice on HuffPost. I am cc’ing our blog editor to follow up. All the best, Arianna.”

You may know ‘Arianna’ is Arianna Huffington of the Huffington Post, New York.

This is about the importance of taking ownership of your own success and failure. It’s about the process I used to get accepted as a HuffPost contributor by none other than Arianna Huffington herself.

It’s about failing to fail*

The first time ‘it’ happened – the before case – I was devastated.

The second time it happened – a year later – I was okay. Disappointed, yes. But okay. To the point of being quite pleased with myself.

The event was failing to get in to the Clinical Health Psychology Internship programme.

This was work I was born to do, and I’d been eyeing it for years. Clinical health psychologists typically support people living with chronic health conditions such as diabetes, HIV, and cancer. They provide support around shocking diagnoses, challenging treatment regimens and medical conditions. They also assist with any associated mental distress.

I was already an experienced counselor with excellent references. There was no other job I could imagine being as satisfying. There was no other job I wanted.

The first time I applied for the internship, unsurprisingly, the goal was to be accepted.

I didn’t get in.

It’s hard to adequately describe how completely unraveled I was by this rejection.

The best I can do is that it felt like free-falling into an abyss.

I tried used constructive self-talk. I told myself that I would find a way around this. That I would find another way to do the work that I loved.

It didn’t help much.

I failed to get into the Clinical Health Psychology Internship programme again the following year. However, my reaction to this second rejection was a world away from my reaction to the first rejection.

And this difference in my reactions was due to me taking control of my own success. And failure.

The second time I didn’t get into the internship programme, I hadn’t failed. I didn’t get in, but I hadn’t failed.

This was because, second time round, I changed my goal. I changed my benchmark for success.

The second time around my benchmark for success was not getting into the program. My benchmark was to be as authentic as possible in the application process, especially the interview.

No trying to impress. No trying to get the interview panel to like me. Just trying to be as open and honest as possible. Just being myself.

And I felt I succeeded at that.

Admittedly, with the first rejection, I’d had some warning that I might not get in the second time. But I’m convinced that had my benchmark for success the second time been the same as the first – being accepted into the program – then I would have been just as devastated by the second rejection as I was by the first. Possibly more so.

But the second time I surrounded myself with an almost fail-proof scaffolding. And I was disappointed, but okay.

Actually, I was better than okay. I was quite pleased with myself and pleasantly surprised at the effectiveness of setting my own benchmarks for my own success.

Even the academic in charge of the selection process – who knew how important the internship was to me – was surprised I wasn’t more upset when he delivered the bad news.

I tried to explain that that I was satisfied I’d met my own benchmark for success – of being as authentic as possible in the application process.

He didn’t get it. He said I’d been authentic the previous year.

At the time I couldn’t clearly verbalize the difference was that last year, being authentic was not the goal. This year it was.

He continued to probe my lack of upset, saying “surely it’s hard when you toss your hat in the ring and no one picks it up?”.

Of course, the perfect response didn’t occur to me until after I’d left his office. Which was:

I didn’t give you permission to pick up my hat. I picked up my own damn hat

And I went and got myself a Ph.D.

And I am creating new ways to do the work that I love, but this failure-proofing technique is both powerful and useful in a range of situations.

I now set my benchmarks for success – and failure – as things that are within my control, not someone else’s.

Because if I let someone else set my benchmarks for success and failure, I’m taking all control of my own outcomes – of my success – out of my hands and placing it in theirs.

Giving someone else control of your success and failure sets you up for two bad things.

The first bad thing is anxiety at the prospect of failure. This is because you cannot control what other people will do and trying to control the uncontrollable is a recipe for fear, stress, anxiety, and…procrastination.

The second bad thing is devastation in the event of failure. When failure is  devastating, we’ll go to a lot of trouble to avoid the mere possibility. And it’s hard to succeed when we aren’t willing to fail.

In contrast, I now go into scary situations with more confidence. I don’t need to ‘do well’ – I just need to show up and do my best. Even when my best is shyte, it’s still my best.

Typically my success benchmarks are something like being audacious, courageous, authentic, or vulnerable – like telling you how I was twice rejected from the internship programme. It still feels vulnerable sharing that, even though I’ve since realized I’d fallen foul of office politics.

And this is the same strategy I used for getting my work into the Huffington Post.

This is the first time I’ll have my work in a popular publication (as opposed to an unpopular academic one).

It took four Huffington Post submissions to get three rejections and one acceptance.

Objectively that’s not a bad strike rate. But before I adopted this strategy of determining my own success, I would have taken the first rejection as proof that what some family members kept telling me – that I’m not good enough – was right. I wouldn’t have bothered re-submitting. What would be the point?

Now I define my success as keeping on keeping on. I pick myself up and try again. Maybe I re-calibrate my approach. Maybe I resubmit elsewhere.

Either way, I leave myself wide open to further rejection. And in doing so, I leave myself wide open to further success.

So, the obvious question to leave you with is… in whose hands have you placed control of your success?

 

*Thanks to Herman for this succinct summary of the post theme.

 

Comment below: I’d love to know your opinion. How do you increase your chances of your success? How do you protect yourself from failure?

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2 Responses

  1. Tara

    So inspiring….I’ve also struggled with the relentless quest to be liked/ accepted/ admired etc… and its accompanying lack of control. This is a such a liberating and profound approach…!

    • Rebecca Stafford

      Thanks Tara. Do try the technique and let me know how you get on 🙂

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