Embracing failure in order to remain an expert?

I had the thought recently that, as I have become an expert in an area, I seem to fear failure more. When I was a student learning to conduct research and clinical interventions, I generally didn’t feel like I was failing when I didn’t do things right, because I knew I was not an expert yet. Of course, I would compare myself to what is expected from a student at that level, but I had a clear sense that I was learning. In contrast, as soon as I mastered a skill, things seemed to shift and failure was not allowed anymore.

As in many other jobs I imagine, the fear of failure that we can experience as researchers, therapists, and trainers is strongly connected to the fear of disappointing others, and to the judgment others might have about us. We don’t want to let our clients down, and we don’t want to be seen as ineffective therapists if an intervention doesn’t work. We don’t want our trainees to think we don’t really know the material we are teaching, or that the training didn’t improve their skills. We don’t want our collaborators on a research project to be slowed down by our lack of knowledge in statistics or by our procrastination issues with writing. In all cases, failure is not just hard because we don’t reach the goals we have set. It is hard because our self image is damaged: as experts, we fall from our pedestals.

The problem is if the fear of failure takes over our work we tend to stay away from what is new and different. It leads us to do the same thing again and again to avoid skills we don’t master, even when it is not the most effective approach, and we lose opportunities to learn. Last month, I had two interesting experiences with failure in my personal life that gave me some insight about my work. The first experience happened as I decided to join a group of people playing soccer a couple of times a week. I had never really played soccer before, and had not even touched a soccer ball in more than 20 years. I was mostly motivated by the hope to have fun after watching the world cup this summer. Well, I did have fun for a few minutes, but soon enough I began to fail at pretty much everything I was doing. My passes didn’t reach their targets, opponent players took the ball from me very easily, and I was not even able to score while alone in front of the goal, with no keeper to protect it. I quickly began to apologize after each instance of failure. A quick “sorry” at first to acknowledge my responsibility after each mistake, and as I kept failing, I began to beat myself up out loud.

Even though I had not thought of myself as a soccer expert before joining the game, I was certainly disappointed in myself. I had clearly hoped for a much better performance, and in that sense, I was falling from my pedestal. I was also pretty ashamed that everybody was witnessing my repeated failures, and probably silently complaining that I was not good enough for this group. Yet interestingly, it is not when I made mistakes that players of my team complained but when I started to beat myself up. Even when I was making mistakes, I was playing. I was not interrupting the game. But when I was beating myself up, I was not in the game anymore. One of the other players advised me to just let go and play. I listened to the advice and began to reconnect with the original purpose of being there, which was to take part in the game, not to perform at a particular level.

This experience resonated when I joined an improvisation class a week later. In improvisation, you have to accept failure. Not just accept the fear of failure, but actual failure, because it will happen for sure. In improvisation what matters is not the specific outcome of each thing you say, but the overall process of building stories with a partner and having fun exploring the unknown. As you keep saying “yes, and” to what you find, you increase your chance to end up somewhere interesting. But if you stop because you are afraid of saying something that’s not clever or funny enough, you won’t go anywhere. See this TED talk that explains what is improvisation and how you can benefit from its principles in your life. And in this second TED talk, a researcher explains how he applied the principles of improvisation to deal with failure in research.

The lesson I take from these two experiences is that we are never completely done with exploring, learning, and… failing. Becoming experts creates the illusion that we will fail less and less. And in a way, that is true. As experienced therapists, you certainly master clinical interventions better than when you were students, and the success of these interventions is more likely now then when you did them for the first time of course. But therapy keeps changing. What we knew yesterday is often not true anymore. And so it goes for research and training too. We have to constantly learn new things to remain experts, which means we have to come down from our pedestals and accept we will fail repeatedly. It is in this spirit that we launched this month our new Learning Communities focused on DBT and ACT. Hundreds of new PracticeGrounders will soon discover the pleasure of exploring, trying, failing, and improving together.

Learning to work with shame that we and our clients experience, learning to respond to mistakes with responsibility, integrity, and compassion are crucial for continued growth. Join us for two upcoming webinars on some of the most important research findings that have implications for clinical work on forgiveness and shame: Steven J Sandage, Beverly Long, & Richelle Moen’s Forgiveness in Psychotherapy: New Research on a Promising Approach and Jason Luoma’s The Top 5 Shame Research Findings that Should Influence Your Practice.