If I Knew I Couldn’t Fail

What would you do if you knew you could not fail?

We invited lawyers at a recent CLE to answer this question, repeatedly, until they connected with their creative sides. They were surprised at what opened up. One lawyer said, “Suddenly it dawned on me that if I stay true to who I am, I cannot fail. The failure is in my own mind!”

When I was representing clients as a practicing litigator, my goal was to win. My competitive spirit drove me. Every loss, no matter how small, felt like a failure at some level. I over-prepared, practiced depositions in my dreams and became more determined as the years went by. At some point, this attitude took a physical and emotional toll, and I left the law.

When I look back from my current practice as a coach to lawyers and professionals, I see a bigger picture. I realize I was driven in large part by my Inner Critic and Inner Judge. These are the voices in your head that criticize you and other people in your life. They worked hard to protect me from my own fear of failure. Their fear kept me from full access to my source of inner power—my Inner Advocate.

What is the difference between the Inner Critic and the Inner Advocate?

The Critic will do anything to avoid failure in the outside world. It relentlessly drives us to follow all of our “inner” rules, whether those rules flow from perfectionism, the need to succeed, or other similar belief systems (most likely inherited from our parents).

The Advocate is motivated by a desire to serve the client in the best way possible. This is an expansive energy, not a contracted energy like the Critic’s.

Some might argue that fear of failure gives them the fuel they need to stay at their edge. The difference between being driven by an Inner Critic and choosing to move into your own edge—even though it is scary—is the difference between unconscious and conscious behavior. Choice. When you choose to take risks, and embrace your fears associated with those risks, you are engaged in the hero’s journey.

So how do you choose? How can you can advocate with care and concern for your clients, rather than steer by your critical and judgmental fear-based filters? I suggest a three-part process toward self-awareness.

The first step is designed to wake up those things that bring you alive in the world. The second step invites you to identify and step into your own edge in your practice. The third step is a practice you can use any time to embrace and move through your fear.

If I knew I couldn’t fail, I would ...

This exercise originally came from Robert H. Schuller, a protégé of Norman Vincent Peale. I was first introduced to it by a friend, who listened and encouraged me as I did it.

As I asked myself the question, a stream of consciousness began to flow through me.

If I knew I couldn’t fail ...

I would take more time off.

I would lead workshops for women to dance and sing.

I would write prose and poetry and publish books.

I would spend more time being present with my children. I would learn to play the violin.

I would live on a beach in Greece.

I would be an oil painter.

I would dance every day ...

What became apparent to me was a need for creativity and space in my life. I saw how important the creative process was to me, how it was critical to my well-being to make it a centerpiece of my life.

Try this exercise. Write your answers down. Repeat it over and over until you feel complete. Then try it in the context of work: If I knew I couldn’t fail in my practice, I would ...

What similarities and differences do you see in the two sets of answers? What patterns appear?

What answers really excite you, energize you, bring you alive? What longing or desires are evoked? What have you forgotten that you loved; what have you neglected? This leads you to the next step in the process.

What is calling me forth in my work/life—that I am terrified to do?

When you read through your answers from the last exercise, notice which ones resonate most deeply for you or cause an internal burst of energy. Choose the top three. Of the top three, which one calls you, yet terrifies you, too? Perhaps it is trying a case by yourself, moving into a practice area that you love, or launching your own firm? Deep inside, you sense that this is an important growth edge for you.

What values of yours are aligned with this edge? Is the edge calling forth a bigger, more expansive you? (That would be your Inner Advocate.)

Once you have identified your edge, write about it. What would it look like if you succeeded? What thirst or hunger inside of you would it satisfy? How would it contribute to your purpose in the world?

I have noticed in working with clients that we tell ourselves stories in which we make assumptions to convince ourselves to stay with what feels safe. If you are thinking about opening your own practice, your story might be that you are not entrepreneurial by nature, that you hate management, or that it is too risky financially. If you find that your story causes you to dismiss the idea without going to the next level, or that it shuts down your curiosity, then you might want to question your assumptions. What terrifies you about taking this risk?

This leads to the last step in the process.

Embrace the fear that stops you from reaching your dreams.

My mom always said, “Fear is just one side of the coin. The other side is courage, and they always match.” And yet, it is counterintuitive to embrace our own fear. Parts of us are sure that we won’t survive the embrace.

When my children were young, I used to read them a book called We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, by Michael Rosen. The story starts this way:

“We’re going on a bear hunt. We’re going to catch a big one. I’m not afraid....”

In the book, the bear hunters encounter many obstacles, such as thick, oozy mud, a deep, cold river, and a narrow, gloomy cave. For each obstacle, the stanzas read:

“Uh-oh, a deep, cold river.

We can’t go over it.

We can’t go under it.

We can’t go around it.

We have to go through it.”

Our fear is like that. There is always a gift in the fear—a gift we can only retrieve by going into and through it. Here is a process that has worked well for me and my clients.

Find the fear in your body. Connect with that part of you and notice what the fear feels like, whether it has a shape, texture, temperature, size. Stay present with it, bringing your breath to it, and simply notice and feel. Allow yourself to feel whatever arises without resisting the feelings. Acknowledge what is present without judging it. I like to think of this process as sitting with a “friend” who is afraid.

If you choose to dialogue with the fear, ask it what it wants for you or what it needs right now. You will bring to consciousness some part of you that was unconscious and start a natural integration process.

Because feelings and sensations are not static, you will experience a shift in the fear as you stay present with it. At some point it will begin to subside, and may disappear altogether. Now connect with your courage to take risks that give you life.

The truth is that there is no such thing as failure—only opportunities to try again in a new and different way. Once we are aware that our Inner Critic drives us from fear, we can choose to remember all our forgotten passions, to move into our edge, and to embrace our fear and transform it into courage. To connect with the power of our Inner Advocate.

Ready for the bear hunt?

Wikipedia contributors, "Robert H. Schuller," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php? title=Robert_H._Schuller&oldid=299024657 (accessed July 13, 2009).

Michael Rosen (author) and Helen Oxenbury (illustrator), We’re Going on a Bear Hunt. New York: Little Simon, 1997.

#failure #resilience

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