Failure: IT’S OVER.
That’s how we often see it.
Failure is so often seen as the end of something. And not the end in a good way, but in a disappointing, tragic way, often ending in anguish, and sometimes with tears.
“Failure” is a powerful word that creates all sorts of negative thoughts in the mind. Even just seeing the word creates anxiety and stress in some people. And if you experience the imposter phenomenon as I do, then not only do you worry about failing, but you internalize it as well and you see yourself as a failure. The imposter phenomenon, also known as imposter syndrome, is the inability to recognize internalized successes and achievements. It’s the constant fear of being seen a fraud for not being good enough. With my imposter phenomenon mindset, I saw myself as someone who always made mistakes and could never truly succeed. I not only failed in all I did and worked on, but in who I was as a person. The problem we often run into with the word “failure” is that we only look at the end result. And if that end result is not what you or others expected, then it’s deemed a failure. You didn’t achieve your goal, so it is determined to be a poor result, a mistake, and problem, maybe even a tragic end. With the imposter phenomenon, you also see yourself as having not achieved what others expected, wanted or desired in a you. So, you see yourself as a failure.
In academia, there is often a lot of undefined end goals and you are continually adjusting as you go. Failure can seem like a weekly occurrence. You can be given a particular end goal in your first phase of a project or writing assignment, and once you’ve achieved it, your professor then will tell you how you need to change the focus of your project based on the first phase developments. But you also have to go back and change what was written in the first phase to align better with the new end goal. Being continually informed you have more changes and more alterations to make creates ever-growing thoughts that you’re failing at writing this project. You have the thoughts, if you weren’t failing at each step, you wouldn’t have all these changes. Working on my PhD dissertation has been exactly like this. I completed the first step, was told it was good, but I had to make all the changes. Okay, in my imposter mindset my first thought was, “so then it wasn’t good.” I’d rewrite it, turn it in, and she liked the changes, but, now I need to make these new alterations and drop this one variable, but maybe add this new variable. Each step there’s more changes, the end goal is not in sight. I’m not even sure what the end goal is besides earning my degree. And honestly, after the third rewrite, my imposter thought was “Oh, wow, I’m so bad at this, I’m going to fail out of my PhD.”
Struggling with Failure
When I was working on my Master’s degree and my imposter thoughts were very strong, I used to look at my assignment results as a reflection of me. Not of my abilities, but directly of me. So, if I failed or when I didn’t reach my full goal, I was the failure. Even when there were assignments I did well on, I focused on the mistakes, and felt I failed.
The year before I started my degree program, I started seeing a therapist due to the many challenges and struggles I was experiencing about myself, the ending of my marriage, and the future direction I wanted for my life. All the while thinking I was failure due to problems in my marriage, my work and my mindset.
My therapist was helping me to work through reasons for my choices in life, career, and relationships and looking back at where things began from. A lot of stemmed from being a kid and having to put everyone else before me. Whether it was to set the example for others by thinking of them, or to defer to others ideas, thoughts or requests. This led me to understanding that by placing myself second to everyone else, I never would see myself as good enough, and that I always failed which are some of the foundational aspects of the imposter phenomenon mindset.
During the process of completing my degree, I realized my imposter thoughts were only hurting me. My therapist at the time would ask me, what did I learn from the process of working on the assignment? What could I improve on next time? This was a huge question for me, as I never had viewed my work this way. I never focused on the developments of the process. I started applying those questions to each of my assignments from that point forward and would look at what I learned in the process. What I could improve on for next time.
I started to apply that mindset and focus to my work. The weight of the mistakes or any failures, began to shrink and my enjoyment for what I was to do next time increased.
Understanding that Failure can be Good
So, what if we do change our perspective? What if we look at failure as seeing what was learned, developed and experienced along the way? How you define this word makes a difference. It can empower you or it can hurt you. It is your choice to make.
To use a familiar example: Have you ever baked cookies, a cake or a pie? Have you ever forgotten one ingredient? Or have the incorrect measurement for an ingredient? Did your final product of cookies or cake come out exactly how it should have? Probably not – but did it taste good nonetheless?
As a result of this experience, next time you will likely be a little more aware of checking over your ingredients and the measurements. That’s learning. Yes, that one batch that you made might been a failure, and it’s okay to recognize that. I’ve thrown out an entire four dozen batch of cookies before because of a missing ingredient and they turned out that bad. But the next time I made those cookies, they turned out much better. In the end, it was a learning experience.
The failure was that single baking process, but it wasn’t the end of my baking. The same applies with any other task or project and in life generally.
Learning to Fail
Here’s the thing: If you fail and then never attempt again, yes, you will have truly failed to ever learn, grow or improve. And you’ll just be restricting your own life and limiting your own abilities. But that’s what life is about: The next attempt, and seeing what you can improve on the next time.
In my experience, when it came time for me to write my master’s thesis to earn my Master’s degree, I was excited and worked diligently. I reviewed it, edited, and did more edits then turned it in. I received it back with a passing score, but it was lower than I expected. My initial thought was, “Okay, what did I do wrong and what could I improve on?”. I was applying my new thinking and mindset. This was big for me for a project such as this. Before I would have seen myself as failure for not achieving a higher score.
Well, upon review, I realized that I completely forgot to add my introduction paragraph. It was something so simple, yet I was so focused on the rest of the paper it slipped my mind. I laughed at myself (literally!). I went in and wrote up an introduction paragraph and knew that this would improve the work overall. Also, since then, I’ve remembered to go through each section thoroughly and make sure I have all small and big requirements completed.
What would have been a failure to me before was now learning lesson for future. Hopefully you’ll learn from your failures as well and apply those lessons toward your next attempts, next opportunities, and next possibilities – your future.
Failure with an Imposter Mindset
When experiencing the imposter phenomenon, you often apply these negative beliefs internally (e.g., “I’m not good enough”) and see yourself as a failure. But I have found that it’s important to look at yourself, and really reflect on your thoughts and experiences. Are you truly doing the same thing over and over? Or have you grown and changed your methods from the past to the next?
If you’re changing and applying lessons, even small ones, then you’re growing. Yes, you may still be making mistakes and things may still not be working out yet, but you’re still trying and making changes. That’s growth. Research in academia is rarely a straight upward trajectory.
In my experience, people often looking solely at the end goal and the final outcome and if it’s not up to the perfectionist ideals and expectations of others, it’s easy to deem yourself a failure. And because of you’re are so focused only on the end outcome, you’re missing out on all the other growth and learning you obtained during the journey and process.
Now that I’m in my PhD program, I am continually focused on lessons I am learning as I go. This is a long journey, and although I could be disappointed that I’m not finished yet, or that I have another revision to do after the previous seven, I know each new lesson is giving me another opportunity to improve toward completing my degree.
My new mindset also helps me manage my mental health where instead of tearing myself down and seeing myself as worthless over mistakes made, I look at the issue and challenge for what it is and work to understand how I can learn and improve from it.
This perspective helps me see my value and understand there is growth potential in what I’m doing. I know I can learn and improve. My dissertation is challenging, with my previous mindset, I would be frustrated in not being good enough to accomplish the section without mistakes and see myself as a failure. Now with my new mindset of growth potential, I see my work as rewarding in how I’m learning to understand not just my content better, but also in learning how to improve my writing through the process. The knowledge and skills I’m gaining through this process will be used as I continue throughout my dissertation study, but also outside of academia in new opportunities.
Seeing Failure as Learning Opportunity
Since I started to reframe my view of failure as a learning opportunity, I have learned several important lessons. The main ones I wish to share with you are:
Accept failure is a part of life
Failure is going to happen, both small and big. Your recipe doesn’t come out right. Your project isn’t a success. Your marriage ends in divorce. It happens. That’s just life at times. But it’s not the end. I completely forgot my introduction and conclusion on my master thesis. Definitely not a shining moment, but I passed, and earned my masters. Plus, I make sure to review all my writing now, whether it’s my dissertation, or blog posts to verify there are introductions and conclusions. My marriage ended, but I learned more about myself and achieved self-growth. When you come across these moments of failure and mistakes, ask yourself: What did you learn from that experience? What lessons from that journey can you apply to the next time?
There is always a next time
Know there is always a next time to apply what you learned. Maybe it will be a new batch of the same cookies. Maybe it will be a new job. Maybe a new life experience. It may not be a next time in the exact same way as before but there will be a new opportunity to apply what you learned. I apply this directly in my dissertation work, as every couple of weeks I receive feedback from my professor on what I need to revise or what I completely missed the focus on and get to put that new knowledge toward my next revision. I’m getting closer to my end goal of completing my degree, even with my end goals continually being adjusted, my next opportunities are helping me to bring my end goal into focus. When confronted with failure moments, ask yourself how can you apply what you learned from this experience toward your next opportunity?
Your effort makes a difference
Don’t ever discount the time, effort and skills you put into what you do. You often won’t see or understand what you’ve learnt and gained until after you see the final product. I have found that’s it’s important to reflect back on not just what you learned, but what you put into the process. The process wouldn’t have happened without your effort and skill. And remember that each step you take, each lesson you apply, brings you closer to your goal. Earning my two masters wasn’t a fluke. Even with my mistakes, I applied my time, energy, knowledge, and skills toward my writing, learning and growth. My imposter mindset would have had me dismiss any effort in my achievements. I saw my first master’s degree as being lucky to finish and felt the professors were being kind to me. Now though, it was me and my effort that earned those degrees. My effort, through my growth in knowledge in skills are helping me earn my PhD. When going through challenges, reflect back on and ask yourself what knowledge, skills and effort have you put toward your accomplishment, and what growth has occurred for you?
Adopt a growth mindset
Although this can be difficult to do, I have found that it’s helpful to adopt what is called a “growth mindset”. This means a mindset where you know you can grow, change and develop due to your efforts and by building on your knowledge, abilities and skills. When you work from a growth mindset, you see possibilities and opportunities over finalities. You will see lessons from your experiences rather than just the end result. My growth mindset has helped me to know that I can earn a PhD. I know that I’ll make mistakes, and yes, I have, but I also know that I can and will learn and improve in my abilities. I also know that through my growth in knowledge and skills, I can create new opportunities for myself. I have been applying my knowledge and skills toward new possibilities, such as starting my own business, developing my own podcast and building up connections with others in in academia and outside to help expand the understanding of imposter phenomenon and more. Ask yourself can you grow and develop from your current challenges? What new opportunities might develop through your growth?
Finding a Friend in Failure
My imposter phenomenon is still a part of my thoughts, but it has less influence on me now. As a result of my learnings and my experiences, I try to focus on the growth in my journey, be it personal or professional. I know that in future I may fail, but because I am always learning and growing, I am not a failure. If there is anything I hope you will take away from this blog, it is that you are not a failure either. Success or failure of your end goal does not define you or your character. You are not a failure, because you are learning through each experience and journey. Throughout my academic journey, I have learnt that as long as you continue to grow and develop through your experiences, you will never truly fail.
Victor Mosconi, MSc, is an entrepreneur and researcher who has experienced imposter phenomenon for most of his life. In addition to having two master’s degrees, he is a PhD psychology candidate researching the influence of imposter phenomenon on help-seeking. Victor is also the founder of Imposter Solution Coach, where he specializes in helping women and non-binary entrepreneurs and leaders replace their imposter thoughts with self-appreciation and empowerment. You can find Victor on Twitter @DocMosPsych or visit his website at victormos.com. Take his quiz and discover your imposter strength.