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Why Failure Is the Key to Success for Women

Aug 19, 2014

When I bodysurfed with my three brothers as a kid, I didn’t hate wiping out as much as I hated my brothers’ laughing at me when I emerged from the wash of a big wave spluttering and gasping for air, swimsuit askew. I had a choice, I could either stop bodysurfing (and thus get left behind) or get used to getting dumped. Eventually I figured out a solution: wipe yourself out so you get used to it and don't dread it as much.

What I discovered after a few self-imposed poundings was that if you can find the sand, you can find the air; it's in the exact opposite direction. And the wave is always happy to introduce you to the sand. Usually it was right where my face was planted. So, if you let the surf fling you about a bit, you can eventually get the sand under your feet and emerge from the water with your swimsuit and composure more or less intact. I still got dumped, but I did it with a little more dignity.

What I now realize I was learning to do, was fail.

Women need to fail. They need to fail hard and they need to fail often. It’s the only way they’re going to succeed. It seems cruel to say that. For many women, lack of success is as familiar as breakfast cereal, except they eat it three meals a day. But a new poll conducted for Time and Real Simple magazines suggests that an unwillingness to fail or a fear of doing anything that could lead to a washout might be one of the pinch-points that is impeding women’s progress to the head office. Failures happen to everyone, but these poll results suggest that women fear them more and perhaps don't bounce out of the surf from them quite so readily.

As part of an ongoing national conversation about why women occupy leadership roles in much smaller numbers than their education, their ability and just simple math would suggest, the polling company Penn Shoen Berland asked 1000 women about success, what it meant to them and what they felt it took to be successful. They also asked 300 men some of the questions to offer a point of comparison. The women ranged in age from 20 to 69 and about 40% of them were in paid employment.

Some of the poll data confirmed what our gut tells us: for women success is less like a spearfishing trip and more like collecting shells on the beach. It’s not a linear process, with just one goal in mind. Secondly, motherhood has a huge influence on women’s outlook, both in her definition of success (it widens) and in her bandwidth (it bifurcates). Other results were more surprising: being good at their jobs was vastly more important to women than men in our survey. And almost half of them believe they are paid less than men for doing an equivalent job.

The biggest bogeyman in the discussions about what’s holding women back is a lack of confidence. Why do women not ask for higher salaries when negotiating? Confidence. Why are women the last to put up their hands for a promotion? Confidence. Why don’t more women run for office? Confidence. Plus all the guff they'd have to take about their hair.

That idea may need refining. One of the clearest finding to emerge from the Time/Real Simple poll is that women aren’t much less confident than men. About 45% of people regardless of gender regard themselves as confident. But many more women—nearly 80%—say it’s an important part of success. Only 63% of men do. That is, women and men are confident in equal measure. But more women think it’s important.

Female workers, the poll numbers show, labor just as hard, believe they are just as qualified, and have as much professional respect as their peers. That sounds a lot like confidence. Yet they just don’t seem to swim for the waves the men do. Roughly three quarters of both men and women said they would not want their boss’s job. But, if offered the position, more than half the men would take it anyway and fewer than a third of the women would. Why do the men believe they could do the job and the women don’t?

The demands of motherhood may be one of the forces at play here, but it’s not the only one. According to the poll, women’s hunger for success dwindles as they age. Almost 75% of women in their 20s regard it as very important to be successful. By their 40s and 50s—the age at which people often become senior executives—only 50% of the women feel the same way. About half the 20 year old women surveyed considered it vital to get promoted. Less than a third of women in their 40s felt the same way.

If this were all just because women wanted time and energy and bandwidth for that resource-intensive home-based start-up called parenting, then it follows that their desire to contribute to the success of their team or to work as hard would ebb too. But it doesn’t wane at all, no matter the age. Women seem to want to put in the time and effort, but not to expect the rewards. Or the status.

Perhaps there’s an answer in women’s attitude to innovation. More than 40% of women believe the ability to innovate is one of the passports to success. But only a few women think they carry that passport. What do confidence and innovation have in common? They can’t be learned without making mistakes. Acquiring them without going through failure is not an option. Failure often hurts, but as Lawrence of Arabia said (in the movie, at least) "the trick is not minding that it hurts" and swimming back through the swell to try again. Women seem less eager to do this. What is innovation, after all, but failing to solve a problem a little less badly each time?

One nugget from the poll encapsulates this quite neatly: to prepare for a big presentation women are more likely than men to do a lot of research and give themselves a pep talk. Men, on the other hand, were more likely than women to give themselves a treat, take meds or practice their power pose in the bathroom. The men are much more likely to revel in the high wire act, to enjoy the risk, than women. (Either that or their meds are amazing.)

It makes sense that women are risk averse. That tendency has protected them and their offspring for centuries. It fortified those pioneering female business leaders who were under a higher level of scrutiny even as recently as this decade. But if women hope to get to the corner office, to that mythical realm that smells like Y chromosomes and golf shoes, they have to be prepared to fall on their faces. And get back on up again.

So here’s a suggestion. Go forth, ladies and louse up. Muff it. Make a blunder. Botch it up royally. Make a complete balls of it. The guys do it all the time. Just before they get promoted.

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