Reflecting on the Fear of Failure
This article was written by Averil Spencer, founder of Launch gURLs. Averil wears many hats at Launch gURLs from running the pilot to fundraising to being a mentor for our girls.
We are currently in our eighth week of the Girl Boss pilot. Each week, the Girl Boss Advisors (GBAs), young women mentors from different communities around the world, come together on a Google Hangout call to work with the Girl Bosses. They talk about the successes and challenges the girls have faced the previous week with their pilot participants. A recurring theme I have seen across programs that work with girls is the fear of failure.
It all started when our head of Curriculum Development and User Experience, Agata, asked us to remind girls to post their work on our social platform to get different perspectives on their work and build our community. Aishwarya was the first to unmute herself and mention that her mentees feel comfortable sharing their work with her, but not the larger group. They don’t think what they produce is good enough because it’s not perfect and they’re afraid to share anything that’s not perfect. Slowly, the other GBAs nodded their heads: many had similar stories. Our Girl Bosses are afraid to fail, so they don’t even try.
At this moment, I found myself listening, but also being transported back in time to some of my biggest failures, personally and professionally. I can still feel the sting of shame being rejected from graduate school after working so hard on the application. Having to tell my recommenders that I didn’t get in when they were all so confident I would be accepted was mortifying.
As cliché as it sounds, my failures taught me more than any of my successes. From each failure, I isolated reasons why I failed and learned from them. In the case of getting rejected from graduate school, I realized that I focused too much on what I thought people wanted to hear and not enough about who I really am and what I believe in.
Getting rejected helped me build resilience. In the past, I let rejection and failure stop my momentum. If I could not get the grade, applause, and acceptance, I didn’t try again. I would try everything once, but that was it. I had to do it perfectly the first time around. But now, I see how much I was missing.
Now, I was not going to let one rejection letter and my wounded pride stop me – this was my education, my future. Graduate school was too important not to try again, so I did, with a lot of encouragement and support from family and friends. I worked hard during the year and applied a second time. I was admitted and went on to have an incredible experience in public policy school where I got to explore my areas of interest, travel to Pakistan for research, and meet incredible people who challenged me.
I now recognize that I have internalized a message that I constantly heard around me (and in many societies around the world): I have to be extraordinary to succeed. I have to be perfect. This message is more often targeted at women, leading to this fear of failure. One wrong move and we will be judged, laughed at, thought of as less than. It is this mindset which keeps our experiences, skills, and knowledge limited. We feel like we don’t have the freedom to try new things and fail, even though we learn so much from failure.
As I drifted back to the conversation, I realized that we have a lot of work to do with the next generation of girls to help dissolve this fear. We need to create more inclusive spaces where all children, especially girls and young women, feel like they can take risks and try new things. Failure should just be part of the learning process. As we think about revising the curriculum and creating Girl Boss 2.0, I know our team will be spending a lot of time dissecting failure in our own lives and looking for ways to incorporate the ability to be vulnerable and to fail into how we build our learning environments.