Why the key to career success is to 'fail it forward'

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Sarah Biddlecombe
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How can you turn failure into success? Three women - Sharmadean Reid, Alice Levine and Evelyn Cotter - offer their advice.

Failure’s probably not the first word people want associated with their careers – after all, it’s hardly one that’s packed full of positive connotations.

And as millennials who are constantly being told we will never have enough money to get a foot on the housing ladder, or build up a pension that will guarantee us a lifetime supply of avocados on toast, it can often feel like failing at work – and risking our incomes – is the worst possible thing we can do.

So it’s hardly surprising that new research from American Express, as part of the Amex Fear-Less Series, has found some 86% of millennials are afraid of failure, with 57% reporting that they have experienced imposter syndrome – specifically, feeling that they are not good enough, or are punching above their weight.

The research also showed that over half (52%) of millennials believe a fear of failure stops them from achieving their goals. This fear seems to be a frustratingly female trait as only 39% of women described themselves as fearless, while 58% of men said the same.

But failure – or a fear of failure – doesn’t need to hinder our careers. In fact, embracing a mindset of “failing it forward” could be just the positive change we need to propel our work in the right direction. Not convinced? We’ve spoken to three women at the top of their careers to hear how they use failure to get them to where they want to be: Sharmadean Reid, Alice Levine and Evelyn Cotter.

How to be fearless by Sharmadean Reid, WAH Nails founder and business woman

Practice Fearlessness every single day: It’s not something you can just acquire overnight. If starting a project or a business is what you want to do, then there is truly nothing to fear.

Have confidence: Know that you are ‘good enough’ and that your ideas matter.

If you want something, go for it! I have this theory that if you talk about something more than three times, then you should be doing it. That’s the WAH philosophy.

Prioritise yourself: Entrepreneurs spend a lot of time doing decks for their business, but you have to do one for yourself, too. What do I want? What is my measure of success? What sort of company do I want to found? How do I want to be perceived? What kind of boss do I want to be? What kind of mum do I want to be? I’ve always written down my personal mission statements since I was a child, and I do one every year.

Every second counts: If you’re working hard, someone else is working harder.

How to fail it forward in your career  by Alice Levine, broadcaster

The power of saying no is incredible: Believe that your opinion and experience matters and stick to what you think is right, even if it’s not the easiest option.

Change your perspective on failure: Don’t be afraid to tell someone if you’re not doing well with a particular task, or that you’re struggling. What matters is what’s going on in your head and changing your perspective.

Don’t worry so much: You think everyone else is a big success and you’re the one who’s not. You just have to stick in your lane and not worry about it.

Harness the fear of failure: Failing is always going to be scary. That’s a good incentive. If you’re afraid of failure, hopefully that will propel you to succeed. And if you fail, it’s not the end of the world. If you succeed, great.

How to embrace fear at work by Evelyn Cotter, CEO and founder of millennial coaching company SEVEN

Teach yourself to fail once a day: Play with failing - set yourself a daily goal of purposefully giving yourself permission to fail (of course, pick small incidental things) and just notice what it’s like not to be in control. This could mean trying something new outside of your comfort zone, putting yourself forward for an extracurricular work initiative, or choosing a role you wouldn’t normally take in a team activity and noticing how you feel without judgement.

Use it to see if you can teach yourself how to ‘make this OK’ and, ultimately, change the relationship you have with failure.

Fortune favours the bold: Fear, excitement and drive are all connected, and very similar energies that act as a stimulus to one another. We teach our clients to identify a big, bold, audacious career goal that they want to achieve - ensuring that the impact it would have feels invigorating, exciting and maybe a bit scary.

The rationale behind this is: the bolder the goal, the more the boldness will help drive us through the fear and take bolder actions. The more we feed the possibility of achieving a goal that is personally invigorating and connected to us, and the more real it feels, the bolder the actions we can take. It helps us use the fear positively.

Make your professional goals as real as you can: Find work role models and analyse how they have gotten where they are. Invite these role models for informational interviews and learn about their career paths, while developing your network. Focus on the feeling when you reach a goal and make that as vivid as you can: turn up the brightness and really feel it. The more you do that, the more your mind sees a goal as achievable and real and this will drive you forwards, keeping fear at bay. Keep energising the goal through this technique of really feeling success and then you will be racing towards, it rather than moving slowly forward with trepidation.

Get on with it to get over it: Sometimes, acknowledging fear as an annoying little monster in your way and pushing past it anyway is the boldest and simplest way to live fearlessly. Stop the thoughts and negative self-talk and choose to ignore that little monster. Each time you reach a goal reflect on the fear versus the reality – the fear is always worse than reality.  

Images: iStock


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Sarah Biddlecombe

Sarah Biddlecombe is an award-winning journalist and Digital Commissioning Editor at Stylist. Follow her on Twitter