Are you scared of failing? Afraid of getting fired? You’re definitely not alone. Failure feels humiliating, and it can be utterly devastating when you dream big and it all comes crashing down. So when I read that 70% of millennials would try to hide a past firing from a prospective employer, I completely understood the impulse.
But hiding it is the real mistake. I’m here, a self-described queen of epic fails, to tell you that pretending to be perfect is what’s bad for your career. It’s even bad for your job interviews. If you have no stories of missteps to tell — or if all you’ve got is some canned, safe little life lesson you’ve rehearsed — that’s a red flag. A prospective employer will conclude that you’ve never tested yourself, haven’t learned when you need to ask for the support of your team and are likely to shy away from big challenges.
And they might be right.
So let’s talk about failure. I’ll start. In my 20s, I had not one but two really humiliating firings. Twice, I got called into the office of a senior person and told I was on the way out. One moment I was breaking into a cold sweat, my thoughts going all blurry, and the next I was being marched down the hall to collect my belongings, as all my (now former) co-workers stared at me. The first time I was fired, my severance was one week’s pay and a one-way ticket back to my homeland of New Zealand. Apparently I was so bad they didn’t even want me in their country.
I told a lot of people, including myself, a lot of stories — about how it was someone else’s fault, how couldn’t be helped because the company was falling apart, why it really wasn’t a big deal. But what I discovered, after being fired for the second time, is that if you want to turn your failure into fuel for your future achievements, you have to tell the truth about it. You have to be honest with yourself and with others you trust, so you can understand where you went wrong and learn from the experience. If nobody knows about your giant screwup, it’ll be all too easy to sweep under the rug — and secrets hidden under the rug won’t help you to overcome.
You need to admit you failed. You do need to feel, for a wee while, that you, amazing you, are a failure. Because the pain and the humiliation give you something to prove, and that “prove it” feeling is what you rally against. Oh yeah? I’ll show you!
But wait — maybe you don’t believe me, because you’ve failed and you didn’t see any benefit. Maybe you’re haunted by a disappointment, and your failure isn’t turning into fuel, it’s just sitting there, dragging you down.
If so, try this: Journal the whole story or find a friend to sit down and share it with (what really happened, not the sanitized version you tell others), until you start to feel the real emotion underneath. University of California psychology professor Sonja Lyubomirsky found that when she and her colleagues asked people to either write, talk or think privately for 15 minutes, three days in a row, about the worst thing that had ever happened to them, the writers and talkers reported better psychological and — get this — physical health, and a month later that still held true.
Admit your mistakes, learn from them, maybe even laugh at them, and then, when the moment comes when someone asks you to share a time you failed, you’ll be able to prove that you’ve been through something rough — and you’ll be ready for even tougher challenges in the future. That’s making failure your fuel.
Sarah Robb O’Hagan is the CEO of Flywheel Sports and the author of Extreme You: Step Up. Stand Out. Kick Ass. Repeat.