There I was, minding my own business during a conference session. I was there to support a close friend of mine who was presenting a fascinating topic. In that role, I put on my smiling and supportive face and prepared to participate in the workshop. In the next moment, a wave of emotion punched me in the gut as I was reduced to tears.
My friend shared an incredibly difficult story about one of the worst events in her life.
It was the first time she shared this story with anyone outside her family, and you could tell from her presentation. A painful silence came over the room, almost as if you could take a bite out of the discomfort. Tears streamed down my face, and all I wanted to do was interrupt her session to run and give her a hug.
It was that awful.
We all wanted the story to turn to the happy ending we hoped would come, but my friend’s story was not a quick one. Weeks, turned into months, and then to years. Relief was not coming, and that got me to thinking.
Stories of failure, for the most part, are useful when they have a happy ending. But what if it doesn’t come?
This question was something Lidia Yuknavitch once asked herself. The writer, and self-described misfit, struggled with fitting in her whole life. As an adult, the pangs of those small failures along the way morphed into full-fledged depression. Although my path ended in a much different personality makeup, I completely identified with her journey.
Her story of failure is unique to those you normally hear, including my friend’s. Failure doesn’t always have a happy ending. Bittersweet is possible, but it’s in the distance.
“Sometimes, you’re just you in your life and you don’t rise at all,” Yuknavitch said. “You just keep going.”
To hear her speak about failure is to chuckle at how we try to wrap all of our stories in a nice little bow. Lidia described many failure stories as somehow rising from the ashes. Almost as it, “I heard an angel sound and everything was beautiful.” Real life doesn’t often happen that way, which often makes you think something’s wrong with you.
“You’re not fitting the stories that tell you how to be a person and have an identity,” she said.
As difficult as it is to address, many of us know that feeling. We can harness all the positivity in our reserves when failure happens, but much of our various media platforms have taught us that things will work out. However:
- What if you do end up losing your job?
- How will react if your loved one leaves you?
- Are you that good at your job?
- Closer to home, what if we don’t make our deadline?
Fortunately, there are suggestions we can pull from the Portland native’s TED Talk on how to properly view these events in our lives, especially when it seems like the clouds won’t part. This is valuable for both your own personal shortcomings, and for our teams.
“Worth is in everyone, and we have to help each other feel it.”
You might have missed your most recent iteration goal. As a matter of fact, it feels pointless to set a goal at this point because you’ve missed so many in the first place. Teams develop a sense of melancholy, often unwilling to dig into any serious subject during retrospectives. Hell, you might not even want to lead the team down this path because of your most recent performance review.
Despair seems to feed off itself, leading teams to believe things won’t ever get better. Carrie Kish describes teams this stage for teams as “life sucks”. It’s the lowest you can sink together. Even if you’re one step above that, it’s not that much of an improvement. “Not all life sucks, just mine,” she describes.
If you are at this level alone, immediately widen the circle and ask for help in seeing your worth.
“Sometimes its tough to admit you deserve anything. Have to teach yourself to want things.”
The powerful part of Lidia’s presentation was when she described her attitude towards success in general. Early in her career, she was invited to participate in a prestigious event for young writers. Luminaries from the industry, as well as agents, would be in attendance. When Yuknavitch received the letter of invitation, she poured a gigantic glass of vodka and sat there in silence staring at the letter.
She couldn’t accept that she had done something, or that she deserved it.
Teams often are at this level, especially when the first few iterations doesn’t go well. It feels lonely at times, but you can help each other feel value in new ways. Yuknavitch describes this as finding a new way out of your pit of despair.
“Sometimes you can’t follow the normal paths to be stronger.”
Trust will need to be rebuilt one step at a time, but it’s vital. Without learning it, a seed of distrust of any future success will emerge. Small piece after small piece at a time, you can start to feel comfortable with success. We just have to help each other get there.
“Give voice to the story only you know how to tell.”
Often, failure creates a turtle effect on people. We duck our heads, protecting ourselves from anything coming our way. It also shuts our mouth from telling the story we need to share with others around us. Why bring to light that which is so painful?
Yuknavitch urged that is exactly the time to give voice to your story.
“At the moment of your failure, right then, you are beautiful. You don’t know it yet but you have the ability to reinvent yourself endlessly. That’s your beauty. Your story deserves to be heard…and I’d be listening.”
My life has plenty of struggles and pain, and it can be frightening to open up that pain to others by inviting them to participate in it. Being that it’s so hard for me individually, imagine what your team must be feeling together.
Encourage them to give voice to failure, and watch what happens.
Back to my friend’s story. Thankfully, she was able to end with a silver lining. She took her sweet time in sharing that part, for which I later forgave (sarcasm intended). This sad story, which included the pain of feeling like a failure for many years, ended with a sort of triumph.
We got to eventually have that hug, and I thanked her the new bond that we now shared because she invited us into the story. It’s something I will cherish forever.