archives, wisdom

Are You Too Smart for Failure?


You don’t like to fail. In fact, you’re terrified of failure. And you have trouble not seeing any minor mistake as a monumental failure. Right? Am I in your head? Yeah? It’s pretty wild in here.

But what is failure? What are the advantages of failure? Why do I think you should start failing as soon as you can, especially if you’re a parent?

Just so we’re clear, I’m not suggesting that you begin to fail, as in, become a serial killer. Or start a cocaine habit. Or forget to pick your kids up at school for several days. Just so we’re clear.

You weren’t born afraid to fail. Watch a child learning to walk and talk. Lots of failing.  Take a step. Fall. Get up. Fall. Get up. Babble. Babble. Fall. Chuckle. Crawl. Step. Walk. Babble. Run. Fall. Early learning includes much trial and much error. When did you become too big to fail?

And now, do you worry that you’re too smart to fail?

If you were a fast learner, if you were an early reader, if you used words like entomology when you were five, if you were told over and over how smart you were, if there were piles of praise every time you aced a test, then you may have felt that your abilities and your achievements were what made you worthy, what made you lovable. You may have concluded that anything less than perfect was a failure, and failure meant that you were not such a smart person after all.

That would be why failing feels terrifying. Because your sense of self is dependent upon fast learning and easy achievement. Being smart is your identity. So the possibility of being not-so-smart, of not being the smartest person in the room, is unfathomable. Even though you know logically that mistakes are a part of learning, you may feel emotionally that you must be perfect, pretty much all of the time, at, oh, everything.

Chances are, no one knows this about you. Chances are, you hide. Both your abilities and your fears. Maybe even from yourself. You may feel like an impostor a lot of the time because, on the outside, you look good. But on the inside, you’re kind of a mess. Worried. Anxious. Afraid that the time will come when you’re found out. People will see that you’ve been fooling them all this time. That you’ve only been pretending to know stuff. That you’re really a faking slacker loser ne’er-do-well. And it will all come crashing down. Very soon.

Hold on there.

There’s another option.

It won’t be easy. You may need the support of a good therapist or coach because these fears usually run deep and start early. You may need to read about perfectionism and impostor syndrome, or about having a rainforest mind, to find support and guidance.

But here’s the gist of it:

It’s time to start failing.

You don’t have to fail like Elon Musk and blow up a rocket. You don’t have to fail like Steve Jobs and be fired from the company that you created. Small failures will be just fine, for starters. Excellence instead of perfection, for example. A B on your final exam. A loud emotional outburst in the middle of a board meeting.

Eventually, you may even rethink the word failure. Instead, you’ll make a mistake, an error, a gaffe, a blunder. Small stuff. No big deal. And even if you experience an actual failure, you’ll know that it’s something that you do, not something that you are.

Something that you do, not something that you are.

Trust me. You’ll still be smart. You’ll still be lovable. And, you will learn much more from failure than you’ll ever learn from success.

Your children will thank you. Your partner will thank you. Your ancestors will thank you.

And your stand-up comedy routines? Will be much funnier.

And your memoir? It’ll be much more fascinating.


Paula Prober is a licensed counselor, consultant, author, and tango dancer in private practice in Eugene, Oregon. She’s spent over 30 years working with gifted youth and adults as a teacher, consultant, adjunct instructor with the University of Oregon, and a guest presenter at Pacific University and Oregon State University. She consults internationally with smart and sensitive adults and parents of gifted children. Her book, Your Rainforest Mind: A Guide to the Well-Being of Gifted Adults and Youth, was released in June 2016. She blogs at Your Rainforest Mind, a blog in support of the excessively curious, creative, smart and sensitive.


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