Talia Ehrlich Dashow of Creativity Gym On Becoming Free From The Fear Of Failure

An Interview With Savio P. Clemente

Savio P. Clemente
Authority Magazine

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Become comfortable being uncomfortable. Realize that you can feel uncomfortable feelings without dying! We often believe that feeling bad means there is a catastrophe in store for us. Noticing that there’s no catastrophe — we don’t die, we don’t get fired, we don’t lose our home, we just feel bad — helps us be more comfortable coping with the discomfort.

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 Talia Dashow.

Talia Dashow helps people use creativity to expand possibility. She has been coaching since 2001, helping people become more productive, procrastinate less, and feel more joy; she also runs Creativity Gym, a Zoom room where people play creativity games to become more flexible thinkers and strengthen their creative confidence. Talia has earned a BA in English at UC Berkeley, a certificate as a mediator, and a certificate to facilitate Lego Serious Play.

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 was a sensitive kid. I was always worried that people didn’t want to be with me. At the same time, I’m a twin, so I was always trying to differentiate myself from my twin brother. I used to turn to creativity as my safe space. In my room I was surrounded by craft supplies, especially cardboard and little boxes. I used to make doll house furniture out of cardboard, and put the pieces on my bookshelf grouped into rooms. Unfortunately, my parents didn’t see magic and possibility in all my bits of craft supplies, they saw junk. As in, “Clean up all this junk!” It was an interesting contrast between “am I okay the way I am?” and “this is where I feel safe and comfortable.”

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?

It’s funny to think of my meandering series of jobs as a career! I did not know what I wanted to do when I grew up, and for many decades after. So I tried stuff. I worked at a computer software company doing front office work. I discovered that answering the phone when everyone calls up angry that they haven’t gotten their package yet is not fun for me, but when I moved to a position where I didn’t have to talk to customers I felt lonely and isolated. I enjoyed helping the marketing department out with tag lines though. I spent summer weekends at the Renaissance Faire — it was such a relief to have concrete things to hold on to, when my week days were spent on a software that moved bits of intangible information around. Later I worked as a designer for Closet World. I learned I was quite good at visualizing what a closet would look like and designing for what the client wanted — and not at all good at selling! The same was true for selling Mary Kay cosmetics, and tower gardens.

My Dad knew what he wanted to do when he was four years old. My husband knew when he was six or eight. I took until my mid thirties to have a clue, I spent my forties trying to make it happen, and I’ve finally got something in place now that I’m into my fifties. I certainly felt like a failure when I compared myself to the men in my life! But that’s how things work, sometimes. If we don’t know the right path, all we can do is explore until we find something that feels like it’s getting us in the right direction. Everything I did gave me information that I could build on.

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?

Stubbornness — In my first job out of college my boss handed me a job and said he knew I’d sink my teeth into it and not let go until I’d figured it out. I hadn’t realized anyone saw me like that! But it seems like it’s been true all along. I could have found a job rather than trying to make a business work, but I kept feeling frustrated at having to contort myself to fit into these other positions. I really wanted to make a Talia shaped space in the world. So I kept going. I sank my teeth into it and didn’t let go until I found something that would work.

Curiosity — When I was leading a dance troupe at Renaissance Faire, I asked them what they wanted to do, then we did it. I was kind of amazed when they told me they’d follow me anywhere because of it! Later I turned that curiosity on myself — what was it that really lit me up? What gifts did I have, and how could I use them to help people? And now, I use that curiosity with my coaching clients — I never make assumptions about what’s going on for them and I never judge. I’m just curious.

Compassion — It seems like most of us find it easier to be compassionate to someone else than to ourselves. We find ways to forgive others, but we beat ourselves up. Especially around something as uncomfortable and sensitive as perceived failure! The biggest shift I made internally, the thing that changed everything for me, was to start seeing myself as fundamentally fine, rather than fundamentally broken. Once I could see myself as whole, I no longer fought myself when I tried to make a change. And having compassion for myself helps me have compassion for my clients and my family, helps me not judge, helps me help them move forward.

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?

Caring about what people think of us is a survival level instinct. Once, we depended on our small tribe to keep us safe and alive, and if we didn’t fit in we could get kicked out — and die alone, hungry, and mauled by bears. Failure feels like a reason to kick us out. We didn’t do what we set out to do, so clearly we are more of a burden to the tribe than a help, and they have no reason to protect us any more. At least, that’s how it feels. Only we still have this survival level fear around things that are not survival level issues. It is highly unlikely that we will get kicked out of our tribe now, and if we do, there are so many places where we could belong that we will find another one. Plus, there just aren’t many bears around to do the mauling. But we still hold on to this visceral fear.

Failure also calls up the question of whether we are worthy of love, respect, friendship, belonging — all the things we value. Our society certainly places a premium on what we accomplish being more important than who we are! So if we fail to accomplish something, it makes us worry that we are no longer worthy of love. It would take a big shift to valuing people for being people, rather than valuing what they can do for us, to change this. I think capitalism as a system is more set up to value what we can produce than to value who we are.

Finally, the closer a dream is to my heart, the harder it is to try it. I think this is true for a lot of people. It’s not so awful if I fail at something I don’t care about. But what if I fail at my heart’s desire? As long as I don’t try, I can hold on to that dream. If I act on that dream, I risk it all turning to dust.

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

People are afraid to share their ideas, follow their hearts, do what lights them up, try something new, or explore possibilities when they are afraid of failure. It keeps people stuck in the small space around them that’s familiar. People feel worried and anxious more of the time. People don’t do things that might be fun or rewarding because they’re afraid to fail. People never even look for what makes their heart sing, let alone pursuing or creating it. People give their power to the people who appear to be the gatekeepers, rather than claiming it for themselves.

Not only does it feel bad to stay stuck there, this fear deprives the world of the new ideas we need to solve the big problems we have right now. It’s unlikely that the big players have all the answers — us small fry need to feel free to speak up with our ideas to increase the possibility of solving these problems. When we play small we reinforce these beliefs that it’s not safe to speak up, and we withhold ourselves from the people who need us.

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

Yes, there’s so much freedom and possibility! If we’re not paralyzed with fear, we can try new things — and maybe find something fulfilling, fun, worthwhile, or lucrative in the process. We can share our ideas with others, and make it more likely our ideas will become reality. We can shed the burden of worry, fear, anxiety, and playing small to stay safe. That leaves us with more energy and space for joy, excitement, possibility, hope, and showing up as our full and bright selves. The more we show up fully ourselves, the more we give other people permission to show up fully themselves. And the more we are willing to speak up with our innovative ideas, the more likely the world will be able to use them for good.

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 took a class in my 30’s to help me figure out what I wanted to do when I grew up. I learned that I bring play and creativity and community building to everything that I do — it’s part of how I’m wired. So I started to explore how to bring play into the work place, and I discovered LEGO SERIOUS PLAY. I got certified to be a facilitator — it’s a great methodology, where we bring LEGO bricks into the work place to help people think with their hands, listen with their eyes, and build a vision of the future together. But I was never able to turn it into a successful business. I kept networking with people on teams who wanted me to do team building with them, but their boss would never call me and I could never track down the boss to call them. A lot of people thought that play and work were opposites, and how could they spend valuable work time on play? They didn’t see how play could actually BE work. I was so sad and frustrated — I knew this methodology had a lot of potential, but I just couldn’t make it into a successful business.

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?

For a while I went and got a job. But I never lost the itch to have my own business. I started thinking that maybe instead of trying to use someone else’s methodology, no matter how good it was, I should develop my own methodology. After all, I have my own unique approach that no one else has, and I don’t have to memorize anything to be able to do it. It’s just part of me. I’m not sorry I learned LSP — it’s great to have it as a tool, and it helped move me closer to where I am now.

One piece of advice failure is just feedback. It’s just information. It’s not a judgment. It’s not an indication of your worthiness or ability or anything else. I learned that leading with play to corporations was a hard sell! That’s valuable information. Now I work with individuals more than teams. I talk about possibility more than play. I learned some things that didn’t work, and built on the parts that did work.

Another piece of advice — figure out what it takes for you to fit. Can you fit comfortably into a position that someone else is hiring for? Do you need to create a space in the world that fits you exactly? I’m always looking for how to make a Talia shaped space in the world.

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.

  1. Become comfortable being uncomfortable. Realize that you can feel uncomfortable feelings without dying! We often believe that feeling bad means there is a catastrophe in store for us. Noticing that there’s no catastrophe — we don’t die, we don’t get fired, we don’t lose our home, we just feel bad — helps us be more comfortable coping with the discomfort.
    I recently ran a new program for some trusted friends, just to see if it held together, before I tried to market it. After one of the sessions, I felt like I had bombed. I started feeling a twisting feeling in my gut, and I started telling myself I should give up, never coach, never lead a class, just go hide forever. I felt terrible! But actually, no one left the group. No one yelled at me. No one even thought it was as bad as I did. There was no catastrophe, even though it felt like there must be one!
  2. Forgive yourself for being human. No one is perfect, we will always mess something up. If we react to that failure with self-recrimination and shame we will try to avoid failures, and then stop trying anything. If we can see that we are imperfect people striving to do our best, maybe we can forgive ourselves for messing up.
    In the above situation, I really wanted my program to be perfect the first time through. Wouldn’t that be awesome? To be so good at what I do that I don’t even need the practice? But that’s not reality. In reality, I could have run that session so much better than I did. I had to forgive myself for needing practice, like normal people need, rather than being superhuman. It can be difficult when we just see the outside of people to realize that inside, they need to practice too. They didn’t show up in the world with experience, they had to earn it.
  3. Decide failure is actually feedback. In a way, it’s only a failure if we call it a failure. If we call it feedback, we can use it to learn and grow.
    Once I realized I had bombed, I started asking myself what I should have done instead. I came up with questions I could have asked, and new ways to describe the things that were confusing. I ended up with a much stronger program than I would have had just going with my first attempt. Once I could accept that I wasn’t dying and I didn’t need to be ashamed, I was able to learn from my experience and make my program better. It turns out that all the voices in my head telling me I was no good actually had some good ideas, once they stopped yelling and I started listening.
  4. Surround yourself with people who are also trying to grow. It’s hard to be the only one who is stretching out of one’s comfort zone!
    I like to compare this to swimming. I’m willing to show up in a bathing suit at the pool when everyone else is also in a bathing suit, because I know that no matter how beautiful everyone else is, we all feel exposed and inadequate in a bathing suit. We’re all in the same situation. However, I’m not willing to wear a bathing suit when everyone else is fully clothed! I once went to a gym where people who were fully clothed could look down on the pool full of swimmers and I always felt exposed and resentful. Why should I bare it all if they weren’t doing it too?
    Stretching one’s comfort zone in terms of becoming free from the fear of failure is similar. If you surround yourself with people who are not getting naked, who are hiding in blame and shame, who make fun of people who take a risk and make a mistake, then you’re going to have a difficult time letting yourself feel exposed. If you are surrounded by other swimmers, other people trying new things and learning from their mistakes, who applaud your courage regardless of your results, it makes it easier to keep going.
  5. Look at process, not product. When I work with people who struggle with perfectionism, they often tell me they can’t get started because they know a thing won’t be perfect. But what if the goal isn’t to have a perfect result, but to enjoy the process?
    When I coach people, I can’t control the outcome. I can’t say: This is what a perfect coaching session contains, and anything else is a failure. Because people come in where they are, and I come in where I am, and we are two imperfect people trying to create something of value. The only thing I can control is whether I am present or not. If I am present, if I show up with no judgment and lots of space for the other person to speak and feel, then I’ve done my part. What I say will not be perfect because I’m human. But it will probably be good enough. The point isn’t to have the ideal session, but to have a real session, with real feelings, and real people struggling through real situations. The process is the point.

But even with things that have a physical product, like art, the process can be the point. Exploring how paint feels, or how to shade with your pencil, or what colors look like when mixed, can all be art.

I’ll grant you there are times we want to have as perfect a product as possible. I want my book to be free of typos, I want my lawyer to know the law, I want my surgeon to cut in the exact right place. The pursuit of excellence is worthwhile — as long as we know we are imperfect people who are practicing to get better, rather than expecting ourselves to be perfect right from the start. The thing we can control is the practice. The practice is a process. This is where we can inch things closer to perfect.

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 don’t think I agree. I have seen some people succeed based on innate charisma and bravado. I’ve seen other people succeed based on humility and vulnerability. The very definition of success varies from person to person — money, status, power, comfort, ability to help others, balance, etc. It may be that each of us has a gift, and that our individual success is based on building on that gift and using to help others — this may be the one way that all of us can succeed. But that success will still look and feel different for everyone, and may be different for ourselves at different times in our lives. I think people are much too varied for there to be only one way to succeed.

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. :-)

I want to help people use creativity to expand their possibilities. I want to create a movement of people who are comfortable exploring their silliness, imagination, curiosity, and expansive thinking. I want people to say “yes and” instead of “no” or “but.” I want people to use play to do serious work as well as to have fun. Just think what the world could be like if we all showed up as the most joyful, colorful, aligned, and curious versions of ourselves! We could appreciate each others humanity, instead of trying to kill each other or step on each other. We could explore new ways to do things that support the earth instead of destroying it. If no one felt they didn’t belong, if everyone could see their special and unique perspective is valued and important, we might not need guns any more.

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 have been inspired by the work of Tom Kelley and David Kelley, founders of IDEO, and authors of Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All. I think their desire to unleash creative confidence in everyone is very similar to my desire to help people use creativity to expand possibility. I think we might have a very interesting conversation! Plus, I saw a video with information about brainstorming that one of them was in and I’ve never been able to find it again. Maybe they can help me with the specifics?

How can our readers further follow your work online?

My website is https://www.taliadashowcoaching.com/

You can also find me at my Facebook business page: https://www.facebook.com/taliadashowcoaching

In my Facebook group we play creativity games: https://www.facebook.com/groups/creativityasaspiritualpractice

Here’s my LinkedIn profile: https://www.linkedin.com/in/taliadashow/

And I just added in Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/taliadashow/

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