It doesn’t feel so good to fail at something, especially when you pour your heart into it. That’s why, when we do fail, we often stick our head in the sand and refuse to try again. But what if I told you that failing can actually boost your confidence, help you learn to be more flexible, and teach you how to be a better problem solver, if you let it? And…if you actually give yourself permission to fail, it can remove some of the stress that’s often involved with trying new things.

A quick disclaimer…I’m not suggesting that you do anything that will get you physically injured, or burn your house down, or anything completely crazy.

What does it mean to give yourself permission to fail?

We humans tend to only do the things that we know for a fact, or with a reasonable amount of certainty, that we are going to succeed in doing. We keep ourselves from stepping outside of our comfort zones because we’re paralyzed by the fear of failure. We don’t think we could handle being bad at something, or doing it completely wrong and making a fool of ourselves. But in doing this, we limit ourselves to only doing what we know. We cut ourselves off from any possibilities that we can’t already see.

But, if we can learn to trust that we would be ok, even if we fail miserably at something, then we would be much more likely to venture out; and the world begins to open up.

Giving yourself permission to fail means that you allow yourself to try new things, knowing that it might not go as planned, but also understanding that you’ll be ok if it doesn’t.

I used to have a lot of trouble with this myself. I was leery about doing anything that I wasn’t pretty sure I could succeed at. If there was even a question, then I didn’t want to attempt it, especially if other people would be there to see me fall on my face. But over the years, this kept me from trying so many new things.

Let’s walk through this together….think of something that you would like to try, but are afraid you would fail at if you do.

For instance, what if you try to learn how to knit? Or to play golf?

What if you try taking pictures?

What if you try writing a short story or poetry?

Whatever your thing is, think about doing it and then having it go the worst possible way that you can imagine.

Really think about it.

What if your knitting turns out to be a big messy ball of nothing? What if you hit every golf ball into the water? Or worse, don’t even hit the ball and accidentally throw your club into the water? What if people make fun of your pictures, poems, or story? What if they ignore them completely?

Would this ruin your day? Would it ruin your life as a whole? Would it suddenly turn you into a super villain because you’re so disappointed?

I know I’m being a little dramatic, and silly about the super villain thing, but in truth, it can be super scary to try something new. Even if those things aren’t that big of a deal in the grand scheme of things.

We get so stuck thinking about all the bad things that could possibly happen if we were to fail, that we don’t allow ourselves to even acknowledge any of the good that might come from our efforts.  

For instance, we may try something that we aren’t that great at, but realize that we enjoy doing it anyway because we enjoy the process.

As a (very small) example of this, I didn’t used to want any plants in my house. I loved looking at them, but actually bringing them home always ended up with them dying and me feeling bad. Because of my constant failure to keep them alive, I avoided getting plants of any kind for years. 

But then, a friend gave me a few plants that were left over from a party, that they didn’t have room for at their house. I brought them home under the stipulation that if I killed them, my friend couldn’t be mad at me. The way I saw it, they were either going to go in the trash and die, or come home with me and die, but at least at my house they would be appreciated a little longer…so, I brought them home. And surprise…they actually lived for several years.

Am I a master gardener now? Not even close. Does every plant that I get live? No. They still have to be able to make it in the harsh environment that is my world. Haha.

Within all of this though, I realized that I actually enjoy planting things, playing in the dirt, and having pretty plants around the house. If I hadn’t given myself permission to possibly fail, I would have never known how much I enjoyed it all.

The thing is, if we’re willing to practice failing at smaller things, then we get more used to the idea of failure in general. Then we can apply those lessons to the bigger things in life.

We can build up our tolerance to failure just like we can build any muscle in our bodies. For example, people who play sports practice and practice until what they are doing on the field (court, ice, etc.) is done from total muscle memory. During games, their mind is on the strategy of game, not on how to kick the ball, or swing the club, or run the bases.

Similarly, if we practice failing by trying little things here and there, when we do something bigger and it doesn’t work out, we already know what those feelings of failure feel like. And while they may not be pleasant, we know that we are entirely capable of feeling them and moving forward, because we’ve already done so multiple times over. So, like the athletes above, if you’ve been practicing failing and you go to ask someone out, you won’t be thinking as much about how you’re going to feel if they say no. You’re going to ask, hope for the best, and know that you’ll be ok either way.

This doesn’t mean that it won’t sting. It doesn’t mean that you won’t possibly need some time to recover after being turned down. But it does mean that you’ll be much less likely to see yourself as a failure as a person, and more likely to try again with someone else.

Because that’s one of the major flaws when it comes to our thinking about failure: that if we fail then it means we’re a failure as a person.

But we aren’t all meant to be good at the same things. If we were, it would be a pretty boring world. So, if you try knitting, for example, and you’re not very good at it, it doesn’t mean that you’re a failure as a person. It simply means that your strengths lie elsewhere. If you try to get a job somewhere and they don’t hire you, it doesn’t mean that you’re worthless, it simply means that the job isn’t right for you.

It’s like the quote: “If you judge a fish by it’s ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it’s stupid.” The same goes for failure and success. If you’re judging by whether or not the fish can climb a tree, then you’re going to consider it a failure as a whole. But fish weren’t meant to climb trees. They were meant to swim in the water.

Similarly, maybe you weren’t meant to knit, you were meant to crochet, or paint, or write, or dance. Maybe you weren’t meant to be with the person you asked out because you would both be much happier with someone else.

If you go through life judging yourself based on what you can’t do that someone else can, you’re going to think you’re a failure as a person. But you weren’t meant to be that person, you were meant to be 100% YOU.

Start small and work your way up.

A small origami crane sitting on a cars dash. This is one of the small ways that I give myself permission to fail.
Origami is another small way that I give myself permission to have fun, but possibly fail, from time to time. Sometimes it turns out well…sometimes it ends up going into the recycling bin.

I know it may seem silly or naïve to compare knitting and growing plants to starting a business or asking someone out, but the idea is that we can start small, with things that don’t matter as much. Then, when something bigger comes along, like asking for a raise, starting a new business, taking a new class, or trying to make new friends, we will have already built up a healthy amount of tolerance to the idea that failure will break us.

It doesn’t mean that these big things won’t be scary. But knowing that we’ll be ok either way will help us to have the courage it takes to move forward.

Just like knitting may not be where your strength lies, not being given a raise might be the catalyst that moves you to find a better job. Not clicking with someone that you want to be a new friend may save you a world of headaches later, and it may lead to you finding someone who is more aligned with your likes and dislikes. So instead of just settling for someone who you sort of get along with, you may find someone you genuinely connect with.

The stakes are higher sometimes, but the sentiment is the same.

Call it an experiment if it sounds less daunting. Either way, don’t allow the fear of failure to keep you from fully living life.

What stops us from trying new things, or moving forward in life, is often a fear of failure. But if you’ve failed so many times that you’re used to it, it’s not such a shock to the system. You know that you can figure out a better way and try again. You know that if you don’t enjoy something, or it doesn’t work out somehow, then you can move on and still give yourself credit for trying.

While it seems easier on the surface to avoid anything that you might possibly fail at doing, this way of existing is very limiting. I know, because I’ve done it many times in my life. It can ultimately leave you feeling like you’re missing out, like you’re not good enough to do anything different, and like you don’t deserve to even try. When in reality, the exact opposite is true.

It’s not that messing up a new recipe, or killing a few houseplants, is going to give you the exact tools that you need to be more successful in your life (unless of course you’re a chef or a gardener =)), but the tools that you gain are resilience, confidence, and flexibility. And you gain those traits whether you succeed or fail, because they are gained from allowing yourself to try.

So, give yourself permission to try. Because once you realize that you can fail and be ok, the sky is the limit.