Author Lia Garvin On Becoming Free From The Fear Of Failure

An Interview With Savio P. Clemente

Savio P. Clemente
Authority Magazine

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Stop the cycle of negative thinking. — Yeah, this is way easier said than done, but to break free from fear of failure, we have to first recognize when the negative thinking is happening. To start being more in tune with our inner dialogue, it’s helpful to check in with ourselves periodically throughout the day or week, asking ourselves, especially when we’re feeling frustrated or stuck, what our inner dialogue is saying. Over time we can catch this right as the negative thoughts start, saying to ourselves, “ah this is the negative thinking cycle, this is my fear talking” and just by labeling it we can start to release the power it has over us.

The Fear of Failure is one of the most common restraints that holds people back from pursuing great ideas. Imagine if we could become totally free from the fear of failure. Imagine what we could then manifest and create. In this interview series, we are talking to leaders who can share stories and insights from their experience about “Becoming Free From the Fear of Failure.” As a part of this series, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Lia Garvin.

Lia is the author of UNSTUCK: Reframe Your Thinking to Free Yourself From the Patterns and People that Hold You Back, leaning into nearly 10 years of experience working in some of the largest and most influential companies in tech including Microsoft, Apple and Google to explore the power of reframing to overcome common challenges found in the modern workplace. As an operations leader, speaker and coach, Lia is on a mission to humanize the workplace, one conversation at a time. She is a TEDx and SXSW speaker and has been a featured guest on WGN Chicago and WJLA Washington DC news.

Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’?

Thank you for having me! Yes absolutely. I’ve spent the majority of my career working in team operations and program management, digging in with teams on what’s getting in the way from them doing their best work. Early in this work I had the hypothesis that before you start talking about deadlines and deliverables, it’s essential to do the work of building strong interpersonal relationships on a team, making sure people feel included, are clear on their roles and responsibilities, feel safe to share concerns and ask questions–and while this is now well understood as a critical driver for effective teams, it wasn’t at the time. Early in my career, I was often told to focus on the ‘work stuff’ first and ‘people stuff later,’ and my approach to the work wasn’t always celebrated. But it was so obvious to me because we were working with people, how would you not first focus on the ‘people stuff’? So I persisted, and continued to drive operations through building relationships with people and understanding the nuances that made them more effective. Sometimes it required shifting my approach to how I was talking about it, other times it required shifting to a new role where this approach was appreciated, but I eventually found my stride.

In parallel, I pursued a coaching certification so I would have a framework on how to bring this people-centered approach into organizational leadership, and began coaching and mentoring people within and outside of the organization I was working in. This work sparked my idea to write a book Unstuck about the patterns and traps that I was, and so many of the people I was working with were falling into when it came to getting to where we wanted to be in our careers, and how to use the power of reframing or looking at these challenges through new perspectives to overcome them.

Now I work with individuals, teams, and leaders as an operations leader in tech and organizational consultant, on how to get unstuck — from navigating career transitions or pivots, to helping teams figure out how to be successful and inclusive as the navigate hybrid work, to how leaders can build more accountable teams, and beyond.

You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Authenticity — my authenticity has helped me build meaningful connections with people, people seeing right away you get the real me when you’re talking to me. It pairs with my values of integrity and accountability — I’m a machine at follow through and getting things done; I have to have been or I wouldn’t have been able to write a book, do a TEDx talk, and build my consulting business, all while raising a toddler and working a full time corporate job. It’s through authenticity that I’ve been able to develop these different aspects of my career in a way that has felt “easier” even when they required an incredible amount of work and time, because I was speaking my truth and being myself.

Humor — part of my authenticity is humor, which might be a surprising characteristic to tie to my success, but it really has been instrumental. When I first entered the corporate world, I thought I had to be serious and formal, and it just didn’t feel authentic to who I was. It made writing and communicating more stressful. I had to rehearse what I was going to say in important meetings because I almost felt like I was playing the part of “serious corporate worker.” I remember after changing jobs at one point, and saying to myself, “I want to do something differently next time, I want people to get to know the real Lia.” And when I let my humor and silliness and sarcasm shine through, the quality of my work, my communication, and most importantly, my relationships improved.

Tenacity — looking back, I feel proud to have accomplished some pretty exciting things, but I always like to share with people pursuing big dreams that nothing I’ve achieved landed on the first try. This quality of tenacity and of continuing to keep trying even after rejection has been at the center. Rejection SUCKS. It can make us question our value, our worth, second guess our goals. And it’s in this moment where we decide, how important is this thing to me? My tenacity and drive to examine and shift my approach when I encounter a rejection or setback has opened the door to everything I’ve accomplished. Appealing the application and then getting in when I didn’t get into my dream college, applying year after year to the company I wanted to work at in tech, reworking my book proposal, hiring a TEDx coach… and then landing each of those things. It’s a reminder that rejection isn’t about who we are as a person, it’s about our approach. Because often when we shift our approach, even slightly, we find we were so much closer to accomplishing something than we thought. Recognizing this can give all of us the tenacity to reframe rejection and keep going after our dreams.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out the concept of becoming free from failure. Let’s zoom in a bit. From your experience, why exactly are people so afraid of failure? Why is failure so frightening to us?

Ah yes, the question of the hour. The word “failure” comes with a lot of baggage. We’re taught from an early age that failure is bad, right? In school we learn that “F” is the possible outcome. Some classes are reduced to “pass” or “fail,” making it abundantly clear which outcome we’re supposed to strive for. Labeling people as “failures” is one of the worst insults.

Failure is being talked about more in the workplace as something that facilitates learning, but until team cultures bridge the gap from wanting to be good at talking about failure to actually embracing it, people often worry mistakes will be held against them, or they’ll lose out on future opportunities if they mess up.

Add to this gender or any intersectional identity like gender plus race, and you see that people who are underrepresented in the workplace face a huge double standard when it comes to failing and making mistakes. When there is only one or few people who look like you in a team or meeting, it can feel like you’re representing the weight of your whole identity group, the stakes can feel too high. Make a mistake and you risk reinforcing some harmful bias or stereotype. Working in tech as a woman and non-engineer, I constantly feared making mistakes, worrying that people would think immediately, “yep, there it is right there — women aren’t technical enough, they can’t cut it in tech.”

When this is happening around us, and we see the double standard at play, the idea of making a mistake or failing becomes even scarier.

What are the downsides of being afraid of failure? How can it limit people?

This is the problem, right? That it limits us. We know consciously that we can’t learn or grow without making mistakes, yet when we’re afraid of them, we might want to resist them all together. When we avoid mistakes, we avoid taking risks, making big moves, innovating. We hold ourselves back from all of the things that will propel our career forward. We don’t seize opportunities that are just outside our comfort zone, let alone ones that will allow us to break through to the next level.

You see how detrimental this can be for people who are underrepresented in the workplace — the cost of a mistake feels (and legitimately is) too high, so then maybe you don’t take that risk, and then don’t get that opportunity, and then the gap continues to widen between you and someone else. It’s not because of your skills, expertise, or potential, it’s because the system, and the biases and double standards that came with it, made the cost too high.

Something I struggled with for a long time in my career was speaking up and sharing my ideas in meetings. I had seen countless interruptions of women making their points, even literal blank stares after they shared an idea, and said to myself, “that will be me if I get it wrong, people will know I don’t belong here.” So I stayed quiet, then overheard someone talking about someone else in a recurring meeting who hadn’t said anything after a few instances of the meeting, and said, “she hasn’t said anything the whole time, what is she even doing in this meeting?” There were all sorts of things wrong with that conversation, but one of the takeaways I had was that it can be worse to just sit in the background, that is not necessarily better than taking the risk and trying to chime in. By being afraid to mess up or be judged when I interjected in a conversation, I was preventing myself from demonstrating my value to the team.

In contrast, can you help articulate a few ways how becoming free from the free of failure can help improve our lives?

Yes! It’s all of the opposite reasons. When we become free from fearing failure and recognize that it really is about learning, it can be energizing. We do this by remembering failing isn’t about us or who we are as a person, it’s about how we approached a situation. Looking at our approach objectively allows us to examine it like we’re Tom Brady watching footage of a game, thinking about what went well, what went wrong, what we want to improve for the next time. Removing “us” from the center of the failure is critical for this. Failing doesn’t mean we are a failure. It means our approach didn’t work. Now we can start the fun part — how else can I approach this situation? Who can I talk to that’s gone through something similar and succeeded? Who can I enlist for help? We’re more resilient and can rebound from setbacks faster.

We also build more confidence. In the book The Confidence Gap, author Russ Harriss reminds us that confident actions come before confident thoughts. If we waited to do anything until we felt confident, we’d be waiting a looooong time; and for some things, we might never feel that confidence up front. But when we try something, even if we fail, we learn experientially about the process, and most importantly, we learn that we have the power to keep trying. This fuels confidence to change our approach, to try again, to incorporate the learning. And when we do that, eventually something does hit.

Last, we can help support others in overcoming their fears as well. By talking about mistakes and failures and the learning behind it, people who are still struggling with it see they’re not alone, that they’re not the only person who has ever made that mistake or felt that way. This normalizing of mistakes and failures also helps us show up as allies for our peers because mistakes are kept secret to quietly judge, but they’re talked about and evaluated out in the open.

We would love to hear your story about your experience dealing with failure. Would you be able to share a story about that with us?

Where do I start? I have many, but I’ll share a recent example because I’ve been thinking about this one a lot in the wake of my TEDx talk that came out early this year. I had wanted to give a TEDx talk for a very long time, and last summer, after opening a rejection email a third year in a row, I realized I had to change my approach. Now I’ll start by saying, this was incredibly disappointing — I mean, three times is not just a random chance at this point, it was hard to not start to internalize a belief that this dream of mine was never going to happen. But channeling that tenacity vibe, I thought to myself, “I need to ask for help.”

I did a ton of research on the TEDx process and decided to hire a coach to help me refine my talk and messaging. Right away I learned that there were some minor things around how I was positioning myself in my application that were getting in the way, and with a few subtle changes, I was able to refine and reapply. I reworked my application, applied, and got selected right away.

How did you rebound and recover after that? What did you learn from this whole episode? What advice would you give to others based on that story?

This was my aha moment and an incredibly reaffirming reminder that it wasn’t about me and my unachievable dream to be a TEDx speaker (and failure of not landing a talk), it was about my approach. And by asking for help, enlisting the expertise of others, I was able to shift my approach and reap immediate rewards.

It might sound cliché or overdone, but it really does come down to mindset. And the concept of the “growth” vs “fixed” mindset popularized by psychologist Carol Dweck is at the center. Having a growth mindset when it comes to failure reminds us that we can learn, evolve, reach better results by enlisting the help of others. We have the power to achieve our goals, we just haven’t gotten there “yet.” Our fixed mindset of believing “I failed therefore I am a failure” gets us nowhere. Instead, after a failure, immediately reframing and asking ourselves, “how else can I approach this?” or “what can I do differently next time?” gets us into action mode, and out of believing there is something implicitly wrong with us.

Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. In your opinion, what are 5 steps that everyone can take to become free from the fear of failure”? Please share a story or an example for each.

We’re talking about fear here, so we really want to rewire our default response from “worst case scenario” thinking to an open minded, “ok, I can give this a shot,” or better yet, excitement around trying something new.

Step 1- Stop the cycle of negative thinking.

Yeah, this is way easier said than done, but to break free from fear of failure, we have to first recognize when the negative thinking is happening. To start being more in tune with our inner dialogue, it’s helpful to check in with ourselves periodically throughout the day or week, asking ourselves, especially when we’re feeling frustrated or stuck, what our inner dialogue is saying. Over time we can catch this right as the negative thoughts start, saying to ourselves, “ah this is the negative thinking cycle, this is my fear talking” and just by labeling it we can start to release the power it has over us.

Step 2 — Tap into our values.

Oftentimes we’re afraid of failure because we’re chasing one narrow outcome, and if we don’t get that one thing, we feel like it’s over for us. But by recognizing what’s the driver behind the goal, such as “being seen as a leader,” “gaining financial independence,” “having more flexibility in our work,” we see there are many ways to achieve success. I can find success in honoring my value of “leadership” through mentoring, managing, getting promoted, launching a new project, starting a side hustle. When we put all of our eggs into one extrinsic outcome, have XYZ title in XYZ organization, we can become fearful of what we perceive to put that into jeopardy, ultimately reinforcing a fixed mindset about how to go about getting that thing. Alternatively, we often find when we widen the definition of success by tapping into the value underneath it, we can take more risks, try more things, and then feel more fulfilled once we’ve achieved it.

Step 3 — Consider who/what can support you?

Tap into your network, do more research, ask yourself “what do I need to do in order to feel more prepared?” Now I’ll caveat this by saying this doesn’t mean waiting forever to make a move, which is a symptom of fearing failure. What I mean here is reminding ourselves that we rarely have to go after something alone, and there are likely people in our networks, and certainly on the internet, who have gone through this same thing, and have valuable lessons to share. In this step, we also want to collect multiple perspectives — people who tried the thing and landed it right away, and who didn’t, people think it’s a great idea, and who think it’s terrible — these give us a holistic perspective that we can weigh and consider what applies to us and our unique situation.

Step 4 — Take the first step.

Let’s say you didn’t land that promotion you were going after and now are scared to go after it again because it was such a let down. By considering how we can change our approach and who in our network might have some insights we can learn from, it’s time to take the first step within this new approach. For me, I’ve noticed overthinking exacerbated my feelings of fear, so once we have an idea of what we need to do first, just start. Go. You will see that taking the first step was likely a lot less scary than you anticipated, and the second step is right there waiting for you.

Step 5 — Reflect on the learning.

Failure is about learning, and when we remind ourselves of this, it stops being about zero-sum (win or lose) outcomes. As we pursue this new approach — what are we seeing, what’s different, what is and isn’t working? Treating this process like a science experiment removes us and our self worth from the center. Think about the difference between the line of thinking “Aha, this version of my resume didn’t get any bites, this other version where I rephrased how I highlighted my accomplishments got some attention, how can I push this even further?” versus “no one is opening my resume, why do I even bother?” In the second scenario we’ve written ourselves out of the equation, we’ve decided it’s over for ourselves. When we reflect on the learning, we can keep going.

The famous Greek philosopher Aristotle once said, “It is possible to fail in many ways…while to succeed is possible only in one way.” Based on your experience, have you found this quote to be true? What do you think Aristotle really meant?

I actually think it’s the opposite! Like I mentioned, when we tap into our values and what’s important to us, there are many ways to be successful, there are many paths and outcomes for accomplishing our goals. Sure there are many ways we can go about failing at something, but if we believe failure is a part of learning, the only way to truly fail, the only moment when something is really over, is when we stop trying. Recognizing something isn’t working and moving on is not failure, it’s a temporary setback on our path to figuring out how to try again.

Maybe Aristotle was referring to success in abstraction as well — that tapping into our values is the only way to truly feel success and fulfillment in our lives. So sure, each of us only has “one” set of values/morals/beliefs. But… I still like to think of it as there are an infinite number of paths to success. I think in this day and age where there is so much choice, so much information, so much signal, it helps foster confidence to know that there are many ways to achieve success and it’s not just one narrow definition.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

Oh yes, I’ve thought a lot about this: the non-destructive “f*ck it.”

“F*ck it” tends to have a negative connotation, like “who cares?” but I think if we reframed that into an empowering connotation like “go for it,” it has so much potential. The non-destructive “f*ck it” mindset tells us we can give something a shot, it’s ok, try it.

In 2013, HP released a study that has been widely cited that women tend to apply to jobs only when they’re 100% qualified, whereas men tend to feel comfortable applying with 60% of the qualifications. I think a lot of this has to do with risk management of the fear of failure, or making sure you’re so uber qualified that the chances of failing are lower. But this approach results in turning down opportunities we would have been great at, continually striving to get more knowledge/expertise/credentials, discounting the amazing skills we already bring to the table. The non-destructive “f*ck it,” say “this job looks interesting, I’m going to throw my hat in the ring. If I don’t get it, that’s ok, I gave it a shot.” It lets go of the personal attachment, and lets us give more things a try.

We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them :-)

I mean I wouldn’t have mentioned Brené Brown numerous times in my book if her work didn’t have such a profound impact on me and my work. Brené taught all of us how to tap into with real and hard emotions in a way that didn’t have to scare us away but that drew us closer to other people; how to be authentic leaders that can inspire others through vulnerability and trust as opposed to fear; who we feel like we’ve known for years even though we’ve never met her. She has been instrumental in my journey into tuning into my authenticity and humor as a leader, and I would love to thank her for that.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Visit my website at www.liagarvin.com to learn more about my coaching, organizational consulting, and speaking; and pick up a copy of my book Unstuck: Reframe Your Thinking to Free Yourself From the Patterns and People That Hold You Back.

Check out my YouTube channel “Reframe With Lia” where I share quick tips for overcoming common workplace challenges.

Follow me on instagram at @Lia.Garvin or connect with me on LinkedIn.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent on this. We wish you only continued success.

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Savio P. Clemente
Authority Magazine

TEDx Speaker, Media Journalist, Board Certified Wellness Coach, Best-Selling Author & Cancer Survivor