All Articles Leadership Inspiration How that wretched slog makes way for your true potential

How that wretched slog makes way for your true potential

"Wonderhell" is the intersection of chaos and achievement -- when you realize failure isn't a finale but rather a fulcrum, writes Laura Gassner Otting.

4 min read


Referee raising arms of the winner for article on fear of failure

(Aluxum/Getty Images)

Each time we accomplish something — big or small — we see a version of ourselves that we didn’t yet know existed. It is inside of this space, between who we were and who we just realized through this achievement that we can become, that the burden of our potential comes to rest upon our shoulders. It’s exciting, amazing and humbling. It’s wonderful. But it’s also stressful, anxiety-provoking, identity-shifting and impostor syndrome-rendering. It’s hell.

It’s wonderful, and it’s hell. It’s “Wonderhell.”

It’s wonderful because we see what more we can become. But it’s hell because we know that the road to get there is most certainly lined with possibilities for failure.

Let’s not fake it till we make it

The fear of failure limits our ability to determine who we are when we are at our very best — to groove the pattern as a leader when we are that best self. If we try to prevent failure by acting like we know what we’re doing, we will groove the pattern instead of acting like we know what we are doing. We won’t actually learn how to do it. Nor will we learn why and how it works — or whether we actually find that work personally meaningful. 

You may think that if you keep faking it, you can never fail. But this setup forces you to speak using other people’s voices and to act using other people’s mannerisms. You try to control everything and end up controlling nothing. Rather than holding more tightly to the reins, you need to allow space for trying out new things, for failure and feedback. This approach will offer greater insight into the areas where you are in consonance so you can focus on what really matters and gain traction over those things. 

Re-categorize failure from finale to fulcrum

We teach our students that failure is part of the process. Each new school year, they repeat the process of adopting a beginner’s mindset. They figure out algebra, and then it’s time for geometry. They figure out geometry, and then it’s time for trigonometry. They figure out trigonometry, and — hold the phone! — calculus is in the house. 

Over and over, year after year, our children learn that this beginner’s mindset is not just OK; it’s necessary. It’s how they grow.

Some of the most successful people on our planet credit these moments in school for helping them do what had never been done before. Sergey Brin and Larry Page, co-founders of Google, are both children of academics, yet when asked about how this helped them become successful start-up entrepreneurs, they point instead to their Montessori school training, where there were no failures or dead ends — just new questions to ask. 

“Part of that training was being self-motivated,” Page explains, “questioning what’s going on in the world, doing things a little bit different.”

Yet somewhere along the line, we adults forget this lesson. We get hired to do something because, at one point, we demonstrated competence in that thing. We get paid, praised and even promoted for it. Then time passes, and we become so afraid that if we try something else, we might fail. We think failure is the finale, but we should remember that failure is the fulcrum: the place where we learn and, grow, innovate and iterate. 

Take a lesson from the pros

Serena Williams is one of the fiercest competitors ever to grace the tennis court (or any athletic stage, for that matter); yet, in practice, she didn’t spend all her time before retiring from tennis working on what she had perfected. She did some of that, of course, to groove the pattern and make sure that certain shots were not mere accidents. But spending more time being uncomfortable — fixing what’s not working, going deep into the pain cave and facing her failures — ensured that she could always come out stronger. 

Is the fear of failure, the agony of the work and the uncertainty of the outcome any less exquisite for Serena as it is for you or me? I doubt it. To get better, we each have to dance with the demons that reside at the darkest depths of our personal pain caves, screaming at us to slow down, to give in, to stop. While those caves might look different for each of us, the exquisite, local, personal pain feels exactly the same.

Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.


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