Failure as Taboo: My She’s Geeky Tweets Part 2

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.

Series index

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 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.'”

    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.

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    6 thoughts on Failure as Taboo: My She’s Geeky Tweets Part 2

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    2. Women are saddled with an inordinate amount of guilt and shame about “failing.” We are raised to take more than our share of responsibility and don’t have the same experiences of shrugging a misstep off and continuing with our lives that accompany young men’s sports/business training. Young men are supported and exhorted to “shake it off” and get back in the game. Young women are expected to “get out of the game.”

      Not to put too fine a feminist’s point on it, but we’re still programmed to think that failure is the end of an endeavor rather than a natural progression of an endeavor.

      Great, thought-provoking post!

    3. My husband is currently reading The Knack: How Street-Smart Entrepreneurs Learn to Handle Whatever Comes Up by Norm Brodsky and Bo Burlingham, so I’ve been reading along as well. Brodsky has a lot to say on failure, particularly in line with the comment above – failure is part of the process of being an entrepreneur. His comments are not gender-specific, and I think he definitely writes from a man’s perspective, but it was really interesting to read that he considers processing failure as a basic skill needed by entrepreneurs.

    4. I don’t know how I missed this post. I’m so glad it was linked up in a Blogher post. I am struggling daily with the aftereffects of being laid off after choosing to scale down my business in favor of being an employee. It feels like failure; it feels like rejection. It feels crappy. Getting up and putting my best foot forward in the morning is an effort unto itself, the silence of resumes sent, but not answered, is unbearable sometimes.

      The fail script is one I try to set aside every day. Some days I’m able to, others not so much. But I keep trying.

    5. Hey Amy,

      First some compassion for you with all the changes going on in your own life. My heart really goes out to you.

      A few years ago, I started reading a book called Failing Forward by Robert Maxwell. Great title, ok book. A bit on the muscular Christian side for me. But there were some really sound ideas in the book and I synthesized them with stuff I learned from my life coaching education and presented weekly study groups on the topic of failure for several months.

      Helped me a ton with my attitudes re failure. Can’t say I like to fail but I’ve gotten a lot better at putting it into perspective and not confusing failure with being a failure.

      Some other ideas your post sparked for me:

      1. I never really gave a lot of thought to gender differences around failure. But you got me thinking and some questions that came up for me include:

      Men get involved in team sports a lot earlier than girls (that’s changing but just observing my son I’ve noticed boys tend to be more “pack-like” than girls. In sports it’s easier to learn that there are certain odds behind failure and success. Batting averages in baseball are a good example. You come to expect that failure is normal.

      The “good girl” thing: that somehow if we play nice and do everything nice we won’t fail. In business being a people pleaser just doesn’t work and you end up pissing some people off.

      2. What failure really “means” it really helped me when I defined failure simply as “an outcome” that isn’t what you wanted. That’s not to say it doesn’t suck. But often taking the long view, failures have ended up working to my advantage.

      3. If you can keep some perspective around things going wrong, you do become a better person. You become less reactive, more compassionate, and kinder.

      4. To my amazement, empathy and compassion are good for business. How? Because I’m finding most people at first just plain need to be listened to and witnessed and embraced from where they’re at. Swooping in too quickly as an Expert doesn’t give prospects anywhere to go with their vulnerability. Often they won’t take the next step to advance the biz relationship and they won’t even be able to articulate why or they’ll use a common red herring like can’t afford you, don’t have the time, etc.

      Thanks so much for bringing up this subject. It’s dear to me for the exact reason it is such a normal part of the human condition and for some weird reason in our culture we can’t discuss it.

      Let’s take failure out of the closet!!

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