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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Comments (6)

  1. Adebayo C. Akomolafe on March 2, 2013 at 7:01 am

    Failure is a portal to other beautiful ways of being! It is the hegemonic preferences of the moment that labels it as such, giving the impression of disadvantage. However, if we looked closely at the social performances of failure, we will find – as Judith says – ‘more creative, more surprising ways of being with the world’. A beautiful article Aerin – and provocative questions! Saving this one for a re-read!

  2. Lorna Prescott on March 10, 2013 at 10:18 am

    Thanks for sharing this Aerin, as Adebayo says below, it is beautiful and the reflection questions are really useful. Reading about your experience has helped me to realise how my own aversion to failure is probably drastically reducing the space in which people I’m working with have the opportunity to experiment. That desire for some kind of control impacts hugely on what can happen or grow – it suffocates emergence and creativity. And on the other hand it provides a framework of some kind in a world in which we are accustomed to control being exerted. So yes, it is like a dance, and it’s helpful to consider that maybe success and failure don’t exist, as long as we’re willing not to be judged by people outside who haven’t been part of the learning.

  3. Sarah Zoutewele on June 24, 2013 at 8:20 am

    HI Aerin, I had read this before we had contact and was moved by it. So it is nice to see it was you who wrote it!

    These reflections take courage to admit and share, so obsessed are we all by not failing at all costs.

    I realise that this fear accompanies me to every lecture and course I give. People pay to come and learn something from me, what if they don’t ‘get it’. I see how much there is invested in my own image as an effective enabler. And why sometimes even after a ‘successful’ workshop I’m left with an uneasy feeling of having manipulated rather than let go to the process which might have wanted to happen outside my own agenda.

    Although as a facilitator, one does need to keep structure and direction flowing for the good of the group. It is a balancing act between that and letting go more.

    What Lorna says is helpful, about judgement by people from outside playing apart in labelling something success or failure.

    I’d add to that saying, any kind of judgement including one’s own inner critic labelling something good or bad, could impede true direct experience and understanding. Thanks for this sharing, it is really helpful.

    • Aerin M. Dunford on June 25, 2013 at 9:30 pm

      Thanks, Sarah. It’s just so lovely to be in touch with you (here and on email). This theme is something that has continued to emerge over the past few months. I suppose it’s not the kind of thing that one just sort of suddenly “gets over.”

      Thinking about failure, and maybe more about our obsession with success, has made me realize just how deeply engrained these belief systems are in my very being.

      At the moment, I am working toward the possibility of opening a business here in Oaxaca and I have to say that this fear of failure (this time on a grand scale) is definitely re-emerging over and over again as I consider whether or not to go forward with the endeavor.

      Much more meditation, reflection and contemplation is needed to learn how I can truly have a different relationship with this thing we call failure.

      Let’s keep talking and dialoguing… I think it’s really important to share our experiences, thoughts and learnings in this area!!

      – Aerin

      • Sarah Zoutewele on June 27, 2013 at 11:16 am

        Aerin, a few more thoughts on group processes. There is a great book called ‘Trust the process’ by Shaun McNiff. Though it is primarily about art making, I found these two quotes which are relevant to facilitators and anyone engaging in creative work.

        ‘If we are able to stay with a situation it will carry us to a new place. The process knows where it needs to go and if it is exclusively controlled by one person, we miss the opportunity to learn this… There is a group mind or intelligence working in every situation and if we can trust it, and sincerely support its natural movement, it will astound us with its ability to use whatever we give it.’

        and this:
        ‘I am describing a commitment to the process and its ability to generate worthwhile results. I learn over and over again that the creative process is an intelligence that knows where it has to go. Somehow it always finds the way to the place where I need to be, and it is always a destination that could never have been known by me in advance.’
        more on your new endeavor in a mail,

        x Sarah

        • Aerin M. Dunford on July 1, 2013 at 5:45 pm

          Hi Sarah… I’m so moved by these two quotes from the book. Thank you for your message on email, as well. I will respond to you there shortly.

          – Aerin

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