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Destigmatizing Failure, Reducing Shame

Written by MJ Ryan, SheEO Development Guide

I was standing on a stage in front of 4000 women giving an hour talk. It was a very prestigious speaking event with a fancy setup—in front of me I could see my slides as they were projected behind me as well as a clock ticking down the minutes. About 10 minutes in, my computer started to try to install an update, the message for which kept being projected in living color to the audience.

Rather than make a joke, stop using the slides, or deal with the situation at all, I kept on. And on. It kept happening and I kept ignoring it. But of course, no one else was. Eventually I noticed my timer had jumped 20 minutes. I had only 3 minutes left to finish—the organizers’ way of booting me off the stage to end the embarrassment. Afterwards, no one would look at or talk to me—including during an hours-long sit down dinner where everyone shunned me. The organizer literally turned her back as I approached.

This event happened many years ago, but still, whenever it comes into my mind, I feel the hot burn of shame. It was easily the most mortifying experience of my life. Needless to say, I have spent a lot of time analyzing what happened. I could have dealt easily with the situation. So why didn’t I?

Of course, it turns out, this was a loaded situation for me. As the oldest child of two alcoholics, I’d had years of training of ignoring the elephant in the room and carrying on as best I could. And so, I did the same in this circumstance, even though I was 50 by then.

With that realization, I promised to learn from my mistake to acknowledge elephants. And in the almost 20 years since, I have gotten better at it. But still I can carry on too long rather than stop right away and call it out when something isn’t right. Early patterns are a bitch to transform.

But this blog today isn’t only about learning from our mistakes, but also about going public with them so that we don’t have to live in shame. Shame is a horrible feeling, one that comes from hiding our errors, hoping no one will find us out. I’ve kept this incident a secret and lived in shame about my wipeout onstage for all these years. That’s why I am telling my story today, in hopes that it encourages you to speak up about your failures.

The more we hide our mistakes, the worse we feel about ourselves and more we spread the toxic belief that no one else makes such errors. That’s why I consider it an act of radical generosity to spread the world about our failures.

To normalize failure and reduce the desire to hide, we at SheEO HQ have a standing agenda item on our weekly team meeting—Mistakes and Learnings. I encourage you to do the same in your companies and families.

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