I’ve skied just about every winter weekend for the past thirty eight years. Skiing is one of my great joys in life, and I take my skiing very seriously. In high school and college I was a ski racer, and now, on the weekends, I work as a ski instructor.
There are three levels of certification available to instructors – Levels I, II, and III. I am currently at Level II and, last year, I attempted the Level III ski exam.
I prepared diligently for the exam. I skied with my old coaches, practiced technical maneuvers, and took classes from master instructors. On the day of the exam, I was excited, a little nervous, and confident. I skied well.
Or so I thought.
When the results were posted, my name was not on the “passed” list. I had failed.
I was crushed. When I saw that I had failed, I pleaded with the examiners to let me re-test on the spot. I knew I could pass, I told them, just tell me what I did wrong and let me try again. Please! When they said no, I became angry.
Here’s what’s most interesting: When I followed my own Four Seconds advice and paused to take a breath and really consider what I was feeling, I found something deeper than the anger, sadness, and disappointment. In fact, I found their source.
Which was made significantly worse by the way I reacted. Now I didn’t just feel shame about failing the exam, I also felt shame about how I acted after failing the exam.
My shame came from my self concept: I am not the kind of skier who fails a ski exam. And I am certainly not the kind of person who whines and pleads if he ever does fail.
Except, apparently, that’s exactly the kind of person I am. Hence the shame.
The danger of shame is that it can stop us in our tracks and prevent us from taking further risks. But what happens if we remove the shame? What’s left?
Almost immediately, I got to work. I trained, I learned the skills I was missing. I practiced.
One thing my failure taught me is that my skills regress in an exam situation. Under pressure, I perform below my normal level of performance. So in order to succeed in a clutch moment, I need to perform at a higher level than necessary during training.
Which means my everyday skiing got radically better.
This is true for many of us in relation to most skills. If we want to communicate well in the heat of a critical moment, we need to be even stronger communicators when we’re relaxed.
But there’s more: Beyond the motivation to get better, my failure gave me the opportunity to cultivate much deeper relationships.
On one level, it’s straightforward: I got help from master skiers and teachers. And, while they were all people I have known for years and with whom I have close relationships, our focused practice together deepened our bond. They had an opportunity to teach, I had an opportunity to learn, and we all felt richer in the process.
On a deeper level, we became far more intimate. Because I felt shame about my failure, I felt vulnerable. And, it turns out, we connect much more profoundly in our vulnerability than in our strength. When they offered me their compassion, love, and care – and when I was able to receive it – we became closer still.
I also became a better leader. I grew in my ability to connect with others because, in feeling my own vulnerability, I am better able to empathize with others who are vulnerable. I don’t need to guard myself from being “infected” by the failure of others like so many of us do; I can be there for people the way others were there for me. I learned how to support others in their moments of failure. I became more compassionate. More human. And that makes me a more powerful leader.
So my skiing got better, my relationships became richer, and my leadership grew stronger.
Failure is a powerful enabler. And the only thing standing in the way of our reaping its benefits is the feeling of shame.
So, how do we solve for shame? Try this counter-intuitive response: Feel it.
The uncomfortable emotions of failure – like shame – are physical sensations in our bodies and they are there whether we choose to feel them or not.
We can block them, but, when we do, they come out in insidious ways: We protect ourselves with anger (The system is broken!). Or blame (The examiner did poor demonstrations and I just copied him!). Or denial (There’s some mistake!). Or defeat (I’m giving up!). Or repression (Who cares?).
And, while those reactions may defend against feeling the discomfort of failure, they simultaneously block us from harvesting its rewards.
But, if we allow ourselves to feel shame – which takes tremendous emotional courage – we will realize something important and profound:
It’s not all that bad.
You will survive the shame of failure. It’s just a feeling, like any other feeling. You can tolerate it.
And, when you do, you are free to capture the upside: better performance, closer relationships, and more powerful leadership.
One more upside: success after failure leads to a much bigger celebration.
I re-took the exam this year and passed.
When I did, one of the examiners shook my hand, congratulated me, and then said, “Failing that exam last year made you a much better skier. I never say this to people, but I’m glad that you failed last year.”
The truth is, so am I.