Your new book, Rising Strong, is about failure. You’ve written two best sellers, teach at the University of Houston and hang out with Oprah. So what do you know about failure?
People look at the success of Daring Greatly or The Gifts of Imperfection and think, Oh man, this has worked out really well. But I self-published my first book. I could wallpaper this building with “As sexy as a book about shame sounds, we’re going to pass” letters. I borrowed money from my parents and sold copies out of my trunk. And then I got a book deal, and that book failed.
Is that where your interest in failure comes from?
I’m only interested in failure because I am interested in courage. I started my research six months before 9/11. Over the past 13 years I’ve watched fear run roughshod over our families and our communities. And I think we’re sick to death of being afraid. My question was: what do the men and women who’ve experienced falls and were able to get back up have in common?
And what do they?
He or she who is the most capable of being uncomfortable rises the fastest. There is a huge correlation between a capacity for discomfort and wholeheartedness. If you cannot manage discomfort, that sends you barreling into perfectionism, blame, rationalizing–without taking away key learnings. Another construct that emerged that I had not seen before was curiosity. Men and women who rise strong are curious people. They’re, like, “What do I need to dig into?”
It seems so simple: notice what we feel when we fail and ask questions about it. Why do we need this book?
The contribution here is bringing into awareness everything that happens under the hood. We asked hundreds of people to list all the emotions that you understand in yourself. The average number was three: happy, sad and pissed off. We don’t have a full emotional lexicon.
Have you found that women respond differently to failure than men?
Shame doesn’t feel different to different genders. However, for women, the No. 1 shame trigger is appearance and body image. I know–I am so tired of hearing myself say it. For men, it’s the appearance of weakness.
Are people getting better at handling failure?
We’re handling failure with a lot of lip service. You’ve got the “fail conferences” and #FailForward. We’re still trying to spit-shine failure. When failure doesn’t hurt, it’s not failure. If you’re a leader who wants to be helpful around failure, then stand in front of your team and say, “We failed, and this is what it felt like.” Shame needs three things to grow: secrecy, silence and judgment.
You say one of the keys to all this is spirituality. Why is that?
I really wrestled with that. The way I define spirituality is a deeply held belief that we are inextricably connected to one another by something bigger than us, and something that is grounded in love. Some people call that God, and some people call that fishing.
Asking for a friend: Are there failures like wardrobe malfunctions that are O.K. to never think about again?
I don’t know that we need to process in depth embarrassing failures. But we do need to process humiliating and shaming failures. Guilt, embarrassment, humiliation and shame: they’re the emotions of self-consciousness. Shame, I am bad; guilt, I did something bad. They’re the two we confuse the most. The only difference between shame and humiliation is I don’t feel like I deserve my humiliation. The hallmark of embarrassment is I know I’m not alone. It’s fleeting.
This appears in the September 21, 2015 issue of TIME.
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