When I was asked to speak at SheSharps event hosted by Miro this Feb I was all excited. I’ve failed LOADS of times in my life. My whole talk could be examples of how I’ve failed.

And then I sat down to draft the outline of my talk and my mind was blank.

First time in my life that I could not list all my mistakes.

This was really weird for me. For most of my life, I could recount mistakes and failures in excruciating detail. And replay them. Over and over and over.

I know I’m not the only one because I mentioned it to a client once when talking about inner critics and they started laughing because they do it too.

But now that I want to use those for a good cause? All gone.

This brought me to the really important point – not the details of failure and how I learned from them – but that learning from failure is so f’ing hard to do.

Failing is painful.

Embarrassment. Shame. Anger. Disappointment. We feel all of these in some way when we fail.

We were trying to do something and it didn’t work. That hurts.

And when we hurt, our survivor brain kicks into action and tries to protect us.

Inner critic. Saboteurs. Primal brain. Lots of different names for the same thing:

Ooh there’s danger, quick fight flight or freeze.

And there’s never any real learning going on when we are reactive like this.

There was a time I had to step in for a colleague to give a presentation from our team to the global heads of supply chain for our company. I’d worked on the front end of the project so was happy to do the presentation on the structural solution.

I was annihilated. Absolutely cut down.

They did not want to hear about this solution, and for an agenda unknown to me, they tore into me and totally rejected the solution.

The worst of the them all? The guy representing the country that was asking for this solution. The country that I had been working on this thing to help them out for 8 months. He fought the most.

As I left the meeting, I called a friend and laughed about it. It was so ridiculous, like a bunch of kids having a whiny tantrum. I couldn’t take them seriously.

But I was still experiencing negative emotions, so my “learning” from this event was focused on:

  • Senior directors are dicks
  • power play arenas are not for me, I’m not wasting my life with such nonsense
  • don’t agree to do that again

It was only much later that I also saw these proactive learnings:

  • ask lots of questions when I agree to do something: who’s the audience? what’s the background? who are the allies in the room? etc
  • did I deepen an unconscious bias about male leaders? and if so, what do I need to do about it?

When the failure happens, we make quick judgement calls that feel sooo right, because they are rooted in protecting ourselves from getting hurt like that again.

I did not join one of those meetings again. I never sought out the opportunity, and for sure I had also made a decision that I didn’t want to be in that kind of cutthroat environment again.

But with all I have learned now, I would do it differently.

Now I know that to learn from an experience, I must get into a positive intelligence mindset.

I need to get out of negative emotions, switch on my executive functions again, and make a considered choice.

Get curious, so I can learn.

Be fascinated by what went well and what went wrong.

Examine what I could have done differently.

How do I want to respond when people behave like this?

And examine how would I want to behave when I’m in a power-play arena with people just trying to score points, and not solve problems?

I still don’t want to spend my time in a cut throat environment like that.

But with what I’ve learned from that failure of mine, today I’d call them on it.

And then I’d leave.

But back to the title of the post. Learning from failure is hard because shifting out of negativity into a curious learning mindset is hard.

But like all things worthwhile, it just takes practice.

This is part of my Thought Piece Series, where I explore topics related to leadership and provide both answers and questions. My intention is to start meaningful conversations that help us move forward. Want to connect? Click here