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Breaking through limiting beliefs about failure

by Aerin Dunford on February 25, 2013

“Failure sometimes offers more creative, cooperative, and surprising ways of being in the world, even as it forces us to face the dark side of life…”

– Judith Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure

Last summer, I thought myself quite witty when I came up with the phrase “experimentation with a longing to fail.” I was at an international gathering exploring “oneness.” I noticed how quick we were to use words like ‘experimentation’ and ‘laboratory’, but when we were truly on the edge of pioneering something new, organizers would often default to the predetermined plan. Since then, I’ve wondered if this longing for failure could be a way of working more intentionally with emergence—rather than an unfortunate side effect of being courageous enough to try new things.

Photo by Aerin DunfordIn mid-January, Deborah Frieze, Sergio Beltrán and I traveled to Järna, Sweden, to host Walk Out Walk On workshops with the participants of the International Youth Initiative Program (YIP). During our time together, I observed my own limiting beliefs about failure. Though I’d spent months singing its praises, I was unwilling to welcome it into my work. We designed two weeklong modules with the 18 – 26-year old YIPpies. The first week, we shared stories and perspectives from the book, interwoven with spaces for reflection and participative dynamics. The second week we planned a very open format so that the YIPpies could self-organize in “experiment groups,” designing and testing prototypes grounded in what they’d learned from the Walk Out Walk On distinctions.

I trusted our design. But it felt risky and uncomfortable to enter the second week without pre-determined content. My anxiety about our self-directed plan started months before heading to Sweden. The day before we started, I became so uncomfortable with this uncertainty that I begged for more control, wanting to nail down the content of the second week. By the end of the first module, however, it was clear that space for experimentation was exactly what was needed.

My anxiety was rooted in a deep aversion to failure. I was afraid that we had not done a sufficient job of setting up the YIPpies for success. I was afraid they would not be interested, engaged… that they wouldn’t show up for each other. And then I saw how these fears were connected to my expectations of myself to succeed. I lost sight of the point of the exercise: to learn how to experiment with new ideas. This, of course, includes learning to take risks, succeed or fail, adjust and then try again.

Unraveling these limiting beliefs has sparked further reflections about what it means to walk out with our whole selves. Something I’ve learned as a Walk Out is that the process may begin by simply playing the part. It might start with a shift in the way we speak about the world—and perhaps, in the beginning, our words are empty, out of alignment with our actions and our thinking. Then maybe, little by little, our practices begin to shift. A change in our actions may arise from a concern for what others think of us, a desire to be liked or to fit in. Perhaps that lack of alignment isn’t such a bad thing; it could, eventually, lead us to a deeper reflection about what’s at the root of our limiting beliefs.

The process of shifting these patterns and sets of beliefs is often neither quick, nor entirely straightforward. It’s a bit like a dance, a process constantly in motion. We act or speak, then maybe take a step back, notice the perspective from which our words or actions arise. Perhaps we choose a new set of lenses, perhaps not. Maybe we play with this new worldview for a bit and then, without realizing, slip back into old patterns. The key is to keep stepping back, noticing, adjusting and cultivating compassion for ourselves, remembering that there is no right or wrong way. In the end, maybe success and failure don’t exist; after all, they’re mostly subjective constructs. How we choose to learn from what we are experiencing is what really counts.

During this work in Sweden, we developed some great reflection questions for the experiments. I sense that they will be useful in our journeys to walk out and walk on and to re-examine limiting beliefs about success and failure. They are:

  • What did we learn by shifting our lens (seeing from a different distinction)?
  • What was hard about that?
  • What conditions made it more likely that we slipped back into the default distinction?
  • When did we consciously choose to operate from the default distinction because it served us? Why?

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