Mike Cundall of Mirth Management On Becoming Free From The Fear Of Failure
An Interview With Savio P. Clemente
Understand you will never be truly free of the fear. We’re too often driven by it. What we can do is learn to exist without it controlling our lives. That’s not to say we don’t respond to fear, sometimes overcome and sometimes don’t, but that we manage it in ways that make us stronger and more resilient. It’s like what they say about grief. It’s not that you get over it, it’s that your capacity to deal with it, to adjust to it grows. That’s not something to fear. It’s something to understand that then navigate as part of the human condition.
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 Mike Cundall.
Mike Cundall is a university professor, author, consultant, and public speaker. He researches humor and how humor can be used to improve our lives; a topic he explores in his book “The Humor Hack.” He enjoys working with people and organizations to help improve engagement and overall satisfaction at work or elsewhere.
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’?
I am a philosophy professor who studies a wide array of topics related to humor. I am interested in how humor works, the effects it has in our lives, and why we should be using it more. I began my interest in humor during graduate school when I was working on my dissertation on autism. My recent focus in humor is on more practical things humor can do for us, like improving our psychological and physical health. I developed a company called Mirth Management (www.mirthmanagement.co) in order to help people and organizations improve things like engagement and enjoyment. I’ve given keynote addresses to the US Army and local business groups and have published two books on topics related to humor. I’ve two more in the works.
Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
My story involves taking a rejection I often got and rolling it into part of new sales pitch and finding ways to use humor to make it work for me rather than against me. I took one of the rejections that I get when I “pitch” my business to someone and turned it into a joke that has helped me in subsequent pitches. What often happens when I explain to folks I help organizations use the power of humor to improve engagement, health, and such, they often agree with me, agree we need more humor, agree that I am qualified to do the work, but then when I ask them if it’s cool enough to hire me, they pause, it gets awkward, and then they say “Well, it’s not that cool.” That response always annoyed me and not just because I was losing a potential client. It was annoying because people recognized the worth of what I did vet still resisted working with me. I now use this rejections when I approach future clients. I just tell them the story. I start with, want to hear one of the funniest rejections I get? They laugh because of the irony and it gets them to feel less tense as I go on to address the reasons I suspect they decline. It’s actually been quite helpful in getting me to work with folks.
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?
One of the traits I have that is most helpful to me is pleasant persistence. I’m an academic so my work is constantly rejected. I was rejected by over 100 agents and publishing houses for my book “The Humor Hack.” I was rejected by grad schools, and let’s not talk about dating ;-). But as I learned, if I believe in something, not many are going to open those doors for me. I have to either keep knocking, or be ready when it opens. I also had to learn that there are a number of reasons I’ve been rejected and often they’ve not everything to do with me. Sometimes it is just a bad day for the other person and nothing I could have done was going to change the outcome. The other skill I have is to be able to find the humor in things. From failure, to the little oddities we all live with every day, the ability to find humor has made my days so much easier. It’s made rejection all the easier to bear. The final thing I have to say that has been helpful is my ability to study and work through ideas. It’s made me a better speaker, a better listener, parent, and friend. It’s what helps me work to get better day in and day out.
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?
Failure gets right to the heart of who we are, what we’re trying to do. It tells us in no uncertain terms, that we didn’t get what we were after. This is a huge blow to anyone’s ego. We’re told from almost day one that when we accomplish something, that that’s something to be proud of. We’re shown from nearly birth that we need to be achieving. We have grades, acceptances, sports tryouts. All of these highlight success and not failure. In the US, it’s all about making it to the next level, the next plateau, the next challenge and overcoming it. We’re praised when we learn to walk, learn to talk. We’re give grades to show us our ability. We can skip grades, test out, earn scholarships. Our world is permeated by success and the trappings of success. To not succeed is to fail, in a very real way, to be the sort of human we all aspire to. And even though we know that failure is part of success, that overcoming failure is one of the most important steps to success, it’s still not valued and praised in the ways success is. It’s only winning, only winning at the highest level that counts. That’s why professional sports teams tank in order to rebuild. It’s not the commitment to success, it’s the actual achievement of it. We sometimes ignore the how (see the steroid scandal of MLB). When you have those societal pressures internalized and externalized, failure is often the worst that can happen. It means you weren’t good enough.
What are the downsides of being afraid of failure? How can it limit people?
The main downside is that people simply avoid taking risks when they’re afraid to fail. The fear of failure is what most researchers attribute as a cause of procrastination. We’re not so much afraid of the doing; it’s the fear that we won’t be or aren’t prepared to do it and hence we’ll fail. The problem is that the logic self-defeating. How could we ever be prepared if we didn’t try? When we won’t even engage, we don’t just lose, we fail at even trying. Sometimes the best we can do is try and in so doing, we’ve succeeded and that’s a huge step forward. A step toward ultimate success not only in the task at hand, but also other tasks we try for. If I hadn’t gotten my book published, does that mean I am a failure? I mean I wrote a book. That’s something right?
In contrast, can you help articulate a few ways how becoming free from the free of failure can help improve our lives?
When we worry less about failure and more about the experience of getting to and through the project we are focusing on things that grow us, help us adapt and move forward. To borrow language popular now, it’s a growth mindset. We may not get what we wanted, that book contract, that job, but we do get a lot more. We get experience. That experience can be supremely helpful. I didn’t ever want to be good at interviewing, but my many failures made me better at dealing with unexpected things, and it helped me later when I was preparing students for interviews. The pay-off may not come immediately, but it will come, as long as you’re open and creative enough to see how to use your experience. Also, instead of focusing on things that we might feel bad about, if we see the experience as giving of important experience, we can develop a small level of gratitude which will likely lead to a more positive outcome.
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?
I spent nearly 12 months dealing with rejection for my recent book, The Humor Hack. Because I’m an organization freak and I didn’t want to double submit, I kept a list of the various agents and publishers I reached out to. I was like 0 for 100 or so. I took a little break around Christmas of last year before getting ready to self-publish the book. Apparently I sent out a few last minute submissions in early January and one of the publishing houses accepted it. I wasn’t even sure who they were at first because I hadn’t put them into my spreadsheet, so sure I was that I was going to be rejected. No need to add to that spreadsheet of failure. The difference between 105 and 106 failures isn’t that much.
The process of getting a book published is difficult. My odds were awful, but the one thing I had control over was how I responded to the failure. Don’t get me wrong, it was depressing, but when I started calling it my “Spreadsheet of Failure.” That ironic sort of gallows humor approach made the waiting, the constant rejection, seem less awful. Opening it up to enter in the latest rejection wasn’t so bad after a while. And now I have a funny story to tell about my spreadsheet and how I coped with the steady flow of rejection. I also joke that I finally failed at failing when I was accepted. That seems to help too.
The fear of failure remains, but the sting of it when it happens is less when I can joke about it. It’s far more effective than when people say “Fail is just your First Attempt In Learning,” or other vapid sayings. So my contribution will be to tell people how to find ways to find humor in their failure, to find ways to use laughter and humor to show them that while the outcome isn’t what they want, they still have power to laugh and joke and that is often all we have when things aren’t going our way.
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?
Once I began to add more things to my Spreadsheet of Failure, the adding became a sort of win — in a perverse way. Every day was a new high score, every day was a new record. The more I laughed at it, the more I made fun of it, the less power it had over me. I had more energy to keep going even though the results were disheartening. Don’t get me wrong, I would have loved to have gotten accepted from the first out reach. I would have loved to have had an agent just fawn over me, but it rarely works out that way. So I had fun at my own expense.
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.
- The main thing is to just accept that failure is going to happen more often than not. I mean hey, if your expectations are low, then you can’t be disappointed. ;-) But also, there’s so much competition out there and as people who apply for fellowships learn, really good and qualified people still fail.
- The next thing to remind yourself of is that failure can be for reasons that have little to do with you as a candidate. I wish I had known when I was dating. Someone may reject you for reasons that have nothing to do with you. If you make it to the final round of an interview and you don’t get the job, it doesn’t mean that you were the wrong person. If you were you wouldn’t have made it that far. Maybe you wore the wrong color shirt or someone just was a better fit. That’s not a failure indicating lack of experience or lack of ability. You’re a perfectly good pineapple. That day, they went with the banana. It’s not your fault.
- Find a way to make fun of it. Find a way to take away the sting of the rejection. I’ve used humor and made fun of it. What can you do? Does yelling at an imaginary interviewer help? I’ve always wanted to answer the “Why do you want this job?” question with some sort of “Because I like to eat. Cause I like having a paycheck.” Of course there’s more, but damn, do we have to be so pedantic about this stuff?!
- Understand you will never be truly free of the fear. We’re too often driven by it. What we can do is learn to exist without it controlling our lives. That’s not to say we don’t respond to fear, sometimes overcome and sometimes don’t, but that we manage it in ways that make us stronger and more resilient. It’s like what they say about grief. It’s not that you get over it, it’s that your capacity to deal with it, to adjust to it grows. That’s not something to fear. It’s something to understand that then navigate as part of the human condition.
- Finally, failure is an F-word and it’s not the worst one out there. To fail is to be human. It doesn’t mean you’re awful or great. It just means you didn’t succeed. What you do with that information, how you use it, how you work to incorporate that is entirely up to you.
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?
You’re asking a philosopher about this one, so I better not fail to give an answer. The main thing I think Aristotle was intending here was that failure can be caused by a variety of things and some of them might have little to do with what you can control. The Greeks didn’t repel the great Persian navy at Salamis because they were better, the Persians were the victim of a storm. But if you can learn from the failure, if you can avoid the mistakes you may have made, or insulate yourself from situations beyond your control, then you’ll be better prepared for the next time. Getting to know more about the world will ultimately help you to be more likely to succeed in the future.
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. :-)
A movement I would like to inspire is getting people to pay more attention to humor and laughter in their lives. I’d like to show them not only how important they are, but that each one of us can do a whole lot more than we think in regard to humor. We each have the power to increase the humor in our lives, to reach out and share with our friends, co-workers, and even strangers the things that make us smile. When we share that with those around us we all benefit. Imagine how much could be done in our politics if we could learn to smile and share rather than badger and demean. That’s a movement I would be proud to be a part of.
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 :-)
One person I’d like to meet with is Pete Buttigeg. As a public figure and someone who has experienced a lot of derogation and challenges, I would like to see how he uses humor, especially in places where he is attacked. I’ve always found him to be a great speaker and careful thinker. If I could talk with him about humor and how he’s dealt with failure, I think that would be great.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent on this. We wish you only continued success.
About The Interviewer: Savio P. Clemente coaches cancer survivors to overcome the confusion and gain the clarity needed to get busy living in mind, body, and spirit. He inspires health and wellness seekers to find meaning in the “why” and to cultivate resilience in their mindset. Savio is a Board Certified wellness coach (NBC-HWC, ACC), stage 3 cancer survivor, podcaster, writer, and founder of The Human Resolve LLC.
Savio pens a weekly newsletter at thehumanresolve.com where he delves into secrets from living smarter to feeding your “three brains” — head 🧠, heart 💓, and gut 🤰 — in hopes of connecting the dots to those sticky parts in our nature that matter.
He has been featured on Fox News, and has collaborated with Authority Magazine, Thrive Global, Food Network, WW, and Bloomberg. His mission is to offer clients, listeners, and viewers alike tangible takeaways in living a truly healthy, wealthy, and wise lifestyle.
Savio lives in the suburbs of Westchester County, New York and continues to follow his boundless curiosity. He hopes to one day live out a childhood fantasy and explore outer space.