Portia Nelson wrote a poem with this title and it contains the subtitle: ‘The Romance of Self-Discovery”, which is more glamorous image than the “Ignominy of Failure.” Recently, I (Donna) have been trying many new tasks that are unfamiliar and at which I don't feel proficient. For example, I forget an ingredient in a recipe, I lose the breakout room button in Zoom, or I build an online learning platform with unfamiliar functionality and things don’t go as smoothly as I like. Research tells us that as humans, we have an aversion to failure, sometimes referred to as "The Ostrich Effect." However, embedded in our failures are opportunities for learning, for insight, for curiosity if we can take our heads out of the sands of ignominy (defined as public shame or disgrace and yes, I did look it up).
The first stanza of Portia’s poem captures a combination of helplessness served with a heaping helping of victimization. I have felt like this, steeped in defensiveness and secretly avoiding any responsibility for my “failure.”
“I walk down the street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I fall in. I am lost... I am helpless. It isn't my fault. It takes forever to find a way out.”
In the second stanza, the poem exposes another challenge I have experienced—denial. And again, my focus on the “hole” makes getting out take longer. My creativity and innovation are thwarted by the object of my focus, too much hole, not enough destination.
“I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I pretend I don't see it. I fall in again. I can't believe I am in the same place. But, it isn't my fault. It still takes me a long time to get out.”
Hope enters in the third stanza. Although the repetition of my “habitual” behavior puts me back in the hole, there is self-awareness. There is ownership of responsibility. And there is quick action—getting out. A glimmer of learning. “I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I see it is there. I still fall in. It's a habit. My eyes are open. I know where I am. It is my fault. I get out immediately.”
Looking back to see forward
In the fourth stanza, I finally move to hole anticipation, rather than hole hindsight. I am learning from my failure. I am choosing to avoid the obstacle. It is more efficient, more productive. I engage the central executive network of my brain and act upon alternative choices. It opens up more new ideas as I move swiftly past the hole. “I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I walk around it.”
And finally, on the fifth try, creativity and learning from my failures birth a new concept. This insight expands my options on hole recognition. Not only do I have a new perspective on the hole, I have a newfound confidence in seeing with a broader perspective:
“I walk down another street.”
I AM learning more from failure these days. But I’m still a work in progress. Success addiction is pretty hardwired and of course, despite these shared ideas, avoiding ignominy is key. I prefer private failures to public ones!