Being taught "you have to be twice as good to get half of what they have" was the beginning of my perfectionism. The saying that permeates the walls of black homes taught me two things: one, I need to work extra hard, and two, I cannot mess up. A microscope was on me, as a black woman, to do things right and to do things well.
This became evident in all my professional roles. Goals must be met, procedures must be followed, and visions must be executed seamlessly. I totally understood why—the work being done was important. As a marketing professional, communicating the wrong information to the public could lead to missed deadlines, unmet fundraising goals, and poor event attendance. As a resource development strategist, unmet fundraising goals meant major community programs wouldn't get off the ground because the resources weren't available; the most vulnerable populations wouldn't be served. And as a student affairs practitioner, inaccurate academic records and a lack of student resources meant low retention rates and unfulfilled degrees.
All of these would be serious problems, but none of them are life-threatening.
My desire to be perfect and my past jobs’ unwillingness to honor failure was a recipe for disaster.
Anxiety-inducing, stressful disaster. So, when I started my new job, I was completely shaken up by my supervisor's excitement for failure.
During the first interview, I was asked about my thoughts on failure. Considering what I mentioned above, I responded honestly, "While I think it's necessary, I've never been allowed the space to fail in the workplace." The interviewer immediately shot back, "At this department, we honor failure. We want our team to fail so they can find a new solution. We want them to fail so they can learn something they never knew. And most importantly we want our team to be okay with failure."
Did this mean they had low expectations? No. It simply meant that they cared more about growth than they did about perfection.
I was excited about the possibility of working at a place that honored failure, but I didn't realize how challenging it would be to release the strongholds of perfectionism and the fear of failure — even at a place that expected it.
I started the new position with the anxiety from my last job. Worried that I won't do things right, stressed that I'll mess everything up, dabbling heavily in a bit of impostor syndrome. My supervisor constantly spent time reassuring me that she doesn't care about failure, she cares about me not learning something from it. "That's when we'll have a problem," she said. And that's when it stuck for me.
Failure isn’t a destination, nor is it an end—failure is a lesson. A redirection.
Whether I wanted to acknowledge this or not, I'd been failing at things all my life. I've had failed relationships that led me closer to myself. A failed bank account that taught me how to properly save. Failed relationships that led me closer to the man of my dreams. Failed job experiences that better equipped me to handle the toxicity that comes with some workplaces. Failed side hustles that reminded me (honestly) what I am and am not good at.
All my 'failures' served as lessons to position me for something greater. They all taught me something new about myself and helped me get clearer about my expectations and goals. They all shaped me. They taught me a different way to approach the same problem. They helped me to identify multiple solutions and taught me how to choose the best one. They guided me toward strategy. And even helped me figure out how to overcome hardship and adversity.
Failure isn't all bad and I'm learning that more and more each day. So instead of being afraid of it, perhaps it's time we start welcoming it. Perhaps it's time we recognize that much like success, there is purpose in failure too. And perhaps we learn to use failure to become our best selves, rather than wallow in self-pity.
“We honor failure here.”
When my supervisor said those words, and immediately followed up to make sure I understood and was okay with that, she allowed me the space and freedom I always longed to have at work. One where creativity and trust looms. One where people know the world isn't ending if something isn't "right".
And one where, despite being a black woman who has to work twice as hard to get half of what they have, I am allowed the same grace as everyone else.
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