Back in January I attended — and live-tweeted — the She’s Geeky unconference in Mountain View, CA. Very slowly, I’ve been mulling over what I tweeted from there. Especially from Susan Mernit’s Jan. 31 session on that taboo of taboos, especially for women in business and tech: discussing and dealing with failure.
(For more context on failure, see this consummate resource.)
|NOTE: This is part of a series based on my live tweets from At last weekend’s She’s Geeky unconference in Mountain View, CA.|
Perhaps more than any other She’s Geeky session, this one resonated with me. Right now, I’m in the process of ending my marriage, relocating from a community I’ve loved and called home for nearly 14 years, entering midlife, and dealing with much emotional backlog that has accumulated while I’ve kept busy busy busy for so many years.
That’s a lot of stuff to handle, on top of work and ordinary life. Frankly, it’s been hard for me to admit to myself — let alone anyone else — that because of all these issues I am not currently operating at the 1000% (not a typo) level I typically expect of myself, and often deliver.
So first, here are my tweets from this session, followed by some results of my mulling on this. Note that I deliberately did NOT identify speakers, except for prompting questions by Susan Mernit. Discussing failure leaves people vulnerable, and the attendees of this session agreed to make it a safe space. Everything appearing in quotes below is from an attendee…
Now at @susanmernit’s epic #shesgeeky session on failure… A topic I know well….. Big taboo on discussing it, though! @susanmernit: It’s important to understand what caused your failure and what kind of failure was it, and what you learn. Lesson from failed startup in a tech incubator program: “I realized that I was not the best fit for my own company — thankfully before I got too committed.” “The problem with deciding to pull the plug on a project is that I was worried about what folks would think/say. Was my reputation at risk?” Depending on how you define success: What’s failure, really? Success can = maturity/objectivity to admit something’s not working. “Often when I’ve had failures, it’s when I ignore my gut, try to just work harder instead of admit what’s happening.” “Women tend to be very hard on ourselves, and the possible consequences of failure loom larger than reality warrants.” “In Silicon Valley, when a man’s startup fails, it’s a one-off. When a woman’s startup fails, it’s treated as normal, expected.” “Because women are expected to fail in business, you feel guilty about failing because you think you’re feeding that stereotype.” “Men tend to have more mentors. That helps cushion failure and encourages risk-taking. Women fly without a safety net more often.” “Men often act like they’re doing their ventures on their own, but they really have much support. Women usually ARE on their own.” “Men are socialized to compete within their brotherhood. Adolescent girls usually don’t experience healthy competition.
Author and podcaster Dan Sawyer noted here via IM: “Great stuff you’re tweeting. Tell Susan it’s got me shouting and cheering over here. It’s very true, and women need to hear it. Particularly the part about doing ventures on their own — that’s a social camouflage, and it’s complete bullshit. The thing is, all of us guys KNOW it’s bullshit — we usually don’t realize that women DON’T know it. And yes, we are trained from birth to compete with each other like boxers — enemies within the ring, friends once the bell is rung. Men who can’t keep that collegiate spirit are not well regarded by other men, even if they’re successful. Actually, reading your tweets on this REALLY helps me understand a couple female friends who had hereto baffled me.”
Recommended book on women’s attitudes toward failure & competition: Peggy Ornstein, Schoolgirls Susan Mernit asks the group: When you do have a failure, how do you process it? Attendee mentions Julie Wainwright, CEO of Pets.com: her company failed the same week that she got divorced. Great essay by Wainwright on getting stronger. “We all have hindsight on how we could have avoided failure. It’s hard to really own that you just made a mistake.” Susan Mernit asks: Why do we always think failure is always “wrong?” “If you don’t take the opportunity to learn when you hit problems, that’s probably more a failure than anything else you can do.” One attendee keeps a running list of every time she took a list and it paid off: motivation tool. Retweet @senia: Doesn’t one need the time to step back in order to learn from failure? If always running, no time to analyze. Me: Especially in online/social media, you can get excoriated very fast and very publicly for failing. You need to be able to deal with that without freaking out. Susan Mernit asks: When you have a big failure, how do you move forward than that? What’s the next step? “Immediate coping skill for big failure: ask for help right away. Don’t close yourself off.” Some attendees disagree, prefer to process failure alone/internally first. “When you fail a team and feel personally responsible, it’s important to remember it’s not ALL on you.” “I now know that when I’m going in a wrong direction, I need to speak up right away. I can’t depend on other people to be my voice.” “What’s weird in tech community is that sharing failure is uncool. It only happens in small private circles an limited ways.” “No one in tech really wants to talk much about failure because it’s such a perception-based business.” Important context for failure: “The lousy economy is happening. Everyone’s vulnerable. Have some compassion.” “I feel like if I grieve a failure, I’ll be weak — even though it’s a natural process. I know that’s stupid, but I still do it.” ReTweetTrends asked me: Doesn’t one need the time to step back in order to learn from failure? If always running, no time to analyze. I reply to ReTweetTrends: Yes, it can help to step back, take time to process failure. But sometime, that option doesn’t exist. “For women, it’s easy to take one failure and pile on: ‘I’m fat. My company failed. I burned this potroast.'”
INITIAL RESULTS OF MY FAILURE-RELATED MULLING
Failure is inherently energy-sapping. When you (by which I mean “I”) have an experience that gets consciously or subconsciously labeled as a “failure,” that just sucks the wind right out of the sails. I suspect this is part of what makes it so difficult to move past failure. It’s a definition that halts momentum.
Is the concept of failure a problem? It does seem that the essence of “failure” lies mainly in the labeling. After all, it’s just another experience — and all experiences have positive and negative aspects and connotations. Since it’s inherently energy-sapping and problematic, would it help to just ditch the concept? Are there any benefits to having a concept of failure?
The disease model of failure. The taboo about discussing failure intrigues me. We act as if it’s contagious, that it spreads via admission, not commission. As scared as we are of failing, most of us (especially women) appear even more scared to discuss it — similar to how people used to whisper “…cancer…” Even trying to listen compassionately to someone else discussing an experience of failure makes many people squirm. Do we think it’s “catching?”
Not talking about failure is a bigger problem than just failing. Failure is a deeply emotional and social experience, and humans are social creatures. Most people seem to need to do at least some emotional processing to get through hard experiences and learn from them. Simply talking things over with a compassionate listener can help us handle the emotions, process the experience, and move on. It also helps others by giving useful insight, information, and validation of feelings that otherwise might leave us feeling isolated and powerless.
Group failure is harder to discuss. When you fail by yourself — or you’re in a position to assume all the blame — it can be much easier to process the failure by discussing it. But when others are significantly involved, it gets harder to discuss the failure because you run the risk of transgressing their desired privacy boundaries or otherwise making them vulnerable or putting them at risk. The litigious nature of business and the competitive nature of tech make it especially difficult to openly discuss failure in these spheres.
Gender differences in failure experiences/discussion? The attendees of this session seemed to agree that women and men experience, process, and weight failure differently. I’d be curious to see a group of men, and a equally mixed-gender group, engaging in a similarly themed discussion to see whether the points and mood are different. I do believe, however, that in U.S. society women are expected to fail and are more likely to be “punished” or “blamed” for failure — and thus may have more reason to fear failing, or discussing failure.
…I’m still mulling all this, but thought it was time to write about it. In the meantime, what thoughts does this spark in you? Please comment below.