That word is “fail.” (I bet that’s not what you were thinking.)

Why? It’s simple, really. When we fail, we learn. When we learn, we grow. When we grow, we have a much better chance at succeeding – as long as we keep going.

Failure is a natural, normal process. To repeat: FAILURE IS A NATURAL, NORMAL PROCESS. It is a learning tool, not a weapon.

The only problem with failure, really, is we are taught it is a bad thing. From the time we are tiny – certainly by the time we interact with a group of children on a regular basis – we are made to feel ashamed of our mistakes and so-called failures.* From frownie-facies stamped onto grading charts to being snickered at when we are not chosen for a team, we learn that failing is wrong and that fearing failure is our norm.

When we are young, our fear of failure is rather useful to the adult systems that keep us safe, after all. That fear keeps us moving in an orderly direction in school, in sports, in houses of worship and at home. And so that lesson, that it is best to avoid failure, is reinforced regularly.

When we get into the serious business of adulthood, our first jobs, college grading systems and experiences on teams reinforce this lesson. “If you fail you’ll never succeed!” they seem to shout at us.


There is no reason “fail” should be used as a synonym for “shame.”

We are told repeatedly that we should equate the idea of risk with the painful shame of failure. Risk actually has two sides: success as well as failure, and an infinite number of shades of both in between. But, instead of seeing the limitless possible rewards of risk, we learn to see only the potential downsides of failures.

For most of us, it takes decades of adulting by default before we realize that this “don’t risk, don’t try, don’t fail” lesson is utter nonsense. Great success is born out of great failure. Examples of this can be found everywhere, from the first airplane to space flight, to the suffragist movement, to civil rights activism. Ground-breaking advances in science, culture and personal freedoms have only come about because each failure along the way was given its rightful role as data, and seen as a series of micro-steps forward.

We “feel like a failure” because we believe it when people tell us these things: “Don’t rock the boat,” “Don’t speak up,” and, above all, “Don’t you dare fail, and if you do, don’t dare tell anyone.” (Those are lessons I’ve never been able to learn. And if I have ever asked anyone around me to learn them, I apologize here and now.)

I routinely coach leaders of generations to talk about failure with their teams. Whether one-on-one or in a safe group, ask the question, “When have you failed and what came of it?” Then listen without judgment and notice what you hear. Find the data in the failure, and celebrate the steps forward and changes in direction that resulted.

We can’t change the widespread fear-of-failure culture overnight. But, we can begin to notice our own overreaction to so-called failure. And we can choose to react differently, to embrace failure as the best way to learn and stop reinforcing this culture of shame.

*We are presuming here that failure does not stem from something that was intended to be malicious or harmful.

Help us Help YOU

When have you failed and what came of it? Share your experience with us and your team. Leave a comment below or email Kay@FacilitatorOnFire.netWe pledge to provide you with insight and solutions to help your team to build success from failure!

your guide

Kay Coughlin, CEO and Chief Facilitator of Facilitator on Fire, has a dream to create a world that is generously inclusive of all adult generations (iGen/Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X-ers, Boomers and Traditionalists).

Facilitator on Fire's "Connecting Across Generations" seminar helps leaders and managers build amazing multi-generational teams. Kay's keynote address, "Top Myths of Leading Generations," helps businesses see the hard costs of miscommunication between generations. "Caregiver Coaching" is for professionals who feel overwhelmed with caring for an older loved one. 


Comments will be moderated. Facilitator on Fire and the Teams That Work Better blog is committed to creating safe experiences to learn together about teams. We are not afraid of hard questions, so please ask and comment about things that are difficult or might be touchy! Language intended to harm others will not be permitted in comments or at live events; moderation will be made and comments allowed at the sole discretion of Facilitator on Fire team members.

1 Comment

  1. Gary Monti

    The “fail/shame” death spiral is a nasty one. Am glad you posted this blog, Kay. Evolutionarily, we were designed to come back from failure and learn from it.
    – Gary