A Field Guide to Dwelling on Your Failures

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Photo: Sappington Todd

When something doesn’t go right, the usual, understandable instinct is often to forget it, as quickly as possible. Move on, we advise each other. Don’t look back. Or, as Don Draper memorably said (twice): “This never happened. It will shock you how much this never happened.” And yet, as tempting as it is to think of stoically soldiering on as the smart approach to dealing with failure, there’s also a solid case for wallowing in your mistakes, at least for a time.

This is the subject of a new book by social scientist Brené Brown, who, in both her research at the University of Houston and her previous two best-sellers, has encouraged people to practice courage and vulnerability in their lives — something she defines as “the willingness to show up and be seen, with no guarantee of outcome.” There’s just one problem with this way of living. Eventually, “you’re going to stumble, fall, and get your ass kicked,” Brown writes in her latest, Rising Strong, published earlier this month.

The new book is all about finding a way forward after a spectacular failure, and it’s drawn from qualitative research — that is, lengthy interviews — done with thousands of professionals, including with leaders at companies like Microsoft, Pixar, Facebook, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, among others. It’s not a neat and tidy process — on the contrary, it’s messy and often awkward.

Bravery and courage are much more pleasant subjects to dwell on than screw-ups and stumbles. “But I’m learning,” Brown writes, “that the process of struggling and navigating hurt has as much to offer us as the process of being brave and showing up.” Here, Science of Us has rounded up some of the most helpful and interesting points from her book about that process.

Get curious about the reasons why you failed. Take a good, long look at whatever it is that’s making you feel like a failure. Explore it from as many angles as you can, and ask yourself questions about it until you get a better handle on what happened. In practice, Brown writes, this usually means that she has to “take a deep breath and think through questions like, What’s at stake if I open myself up to investigate these feelings and realize I’m more hurt than I thought? Or, What if she’s not really to blame and I was wrong?”

This is an exercise that can sometimes be rather unpleasant, because you very well might not like the answers you come up with. (What if your co-worker on a way-past-deadline project really isn’t fully to blame, and you’re part of the problem, too?) It’s something Brown calls “the reckoning,” using the term the way it’s used in navigation: “Dead reckoning” is “the process of calculating where you are,” she writes. “Without reckoning, you can’t chart a future course. In the rising strong process, we can’t chart a brave new course until we recognize exactly where we are, get curious about how we got there, and decide where we want to go.”

Learn how to be okay with an uncomfortable process. Among the many appeals of quickly moving on from a setback is that it allows you some certainty — you quickly come to a conclusion about what went wrong (your boss killed the project you slaved over because he’s a jerk! And this job is dumb, anyway!), and then you get to move right along. Sitting with your screw-up for a minute, on the other hand, doesn’t allow for those easy answers, thereby forcing some uncertainty into your life. And most people, the research shows, do not like uncertainty — take the classic 1960s study that found people would rather, for sure, receive an electric shock now than maybe get one later.

But in her research, Brown has found that the people who are able to rebound from a fall are the ones who allow themselves to dwell in the discomfort of uncertainty for a while, investigating both what went wrong and their feelings on the subject for some time before reaching an unhurried answer. “Curiosity is a shit-starter,” she writes. “But that’s okay. Sometimes we have to rumble with a story to find the truth.” After some honest thought and tough conversations, you can identify what went wrong, what to change, and, finally, how to move ahead.

Don’t mistake one jerk’s criticism for failure. Brown now has two best-sellers under her belt, but she couldn’t even find an agent who was interested in her first book about her life’s work. So she self-published it, back in the days when self-publishing was something most people were very skeptical about. In her latest book, she recounts the story of a colleague back then who told her he enjoyed her book, and wanted to know how to order it for use in one of his classes. When she told him she had self-published, he immediately lost interest. “I really can’t add a vanity-published book to my syllabus,” she remembers him saying.

Oof. But, she writes now, when you feel stung by criticism, make sure to consider the source. Brown returns several times to a Teddy Roosevelt quote: “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood.” She uses this to make the point that feedback can be a valuable tool for evaluating how you’re doing, and what you can do better. But not always. “A lot of cheap seats in the arena are filled with people who never venture onto the floor,” Brown writes. “They just hurl mean-spirited criticisms and put-downs from a safe distance.” Some feedback is worth more than others, and negative feedback itself isn’t a sign of failure.