Coaching prepares us for failure. If that sounds scary to you, or like a sure path toward becoming a spinning, emotional mess, hear me out.
Failure prep is an important part of the coaching conversation because it expands our comfort zone. Hypothetical questions addressing failure sound like, “What if it doesn’t work out the way you wish? And if you fail, what will you do? How do you want it to be?”
To be clear, there’s a difference between anticipating failure and preparing for it. Anticipation is crippling but preparation is smart. Preparation can help neutralize some of the fear, and it engages the rational mind. It can help soften the blow when we do fail (and guess what, we all do.)
The other morning, a friend called to tell me her teenage daughter, who dreams of a career as a dancer and actor, didn’t make the cheerleading squad. She wasn’t the only one, of course, and the odds were stacked against her: Two girls were accepted; 17 were rejected.
“Tell her I’m so proud of her,” I said. “Tell her she’s learning great lessons about how to recover from rejection in a creative field. Shake it off and move on. She is so brave to go for her dreams.”
What I hope she’ll realize is the difference between thinking, “I’ve failed,” and “I am a failure.”
“I am a failure” is the inner dialogue of a fixed mindset, or the idea that you only have so much talent, intelligence, or ability. In a fixed mindset, failure is intertwined with shame.
But a growth mindset stems from the idea that you can always improve, and failure is simply an opportunity to learn. In a growth mindset, a person knows to regroup, analyze the data, and make a new plan.
Lots of people who seeking coaching already have a growth mindset, but we all have knots to work out.
I had to cultivate a growth mindset myself and that’s how I know it’s possible to build the skill. Facing forces that were much larger than me – including the physical limitations of the human body, institutions of power, other people, what the market wants from artists, etc. – I learned to view obstacles and set-backs with curiosity over judgement.
“That’s curious,” became my go-to phrase whenever I would feel exasperated or stuck. The benefit is that now I suffer less, recover quicker, and enjoy the game.
One of the pioneering books in the coaching field is The Inner Game of Tennis by Tim Gallwey. Published in 1974, its central idea is that the tennis player isn’t faced with only one opponent standing across the net. The rest of the opponents are in the player’s mind.
To be sure, some people are going to be better tennis players regardless of their mindset. Success is always a combination of talent, training, opportunity, and even luck. But whether one believes they will win or lose absolutely influences their performance and outcome.
I have been watching Free Solo, the documentary about Alex Honnold’s climb without ropes up the face of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. It’s a film about a super-human, palm-sweating, eye-averting feat. But it’s also a story of training, planning, and the exploration of extreme hypotheticals: What if I die?
El Cap is 3,200 feet of sheer granite. Imagine seeing a spider on your living room wall. That’s what it looks like to see a human on this rock – a tiny creature scaling a large, vertical face. It’s almost impossible to understand how they stick on.
Honnold spent eight years preparing. In the film, we see him practicing the climb with ropes. Visualizing moves in his mind. Documenting the details in a notebook. Obsessing about the choices. Learning to trust footholds, handholds. Learning the limits of the physical body and mental state of mind.
There’s no margin for error. Literally, if you aren’t perfect, you will die.
(A brief aside about the need for plans: The more precise your execution must be, the more detailed your plan must be. The correlation between the two is essential. I say this because I see so many organizations documenting in detail their strategic plan, and it’s a misdirected energy that avoids the tougher question of playing out hypotheticals.)
About three-quarters of the way through the film, Honnold is ready to make the climb. It’s go time. That’s when the film addresses the question of failure head on:
“Tons of more people have died, and Alex is the most likely to die,” says his friend and fellow climber Tommy Caldwell, who has helped him prepare.
We see the film crew meet to discuss the plan if he does fall: “Ok everybody knows what to do if something goes wrong. Josh, just to confirm, who should make the  call?”
I think I watched the documentary three times before I saw this scene. My mind simply skated on its surface because it is so uncomfortable.
Luckily, most of us aren’t pursuing dreams with the possibility of death, right? That’s the good news. But we can still learn from the way Honnold views fear and failure. It is an intentional mindset:
“You’re not controlling your fear,” he said. “You’re trying to step outside of it. … I try to expand my comfort zone by practicing my moves over and over again. I work through the fear until it’s just not scary anymore.”
Finally, the day of the climb arrives. Honnold sets out before the sun rises but quickly abandons the first attempt; he isn’t yet sure if he can succeed with everyone watching, and he listens to his intuition. It wasn’t the day.
Filmmaker Jimmy Chin says, “It’s reassuring that Spock has nerves.”
I can’t imagine I’m spoiling the end to tell you that Honnold does successfully complete his climb. As soon as he can stand up near the top of the summit, he scrambles the rest of the way like a little kid. Everyone breaths with relief.
“You face your fear because your goal demands it,” Honnold said. “That is the goddamn warrior spirit.”
I’m Stephanie. I’m a writer, coach, and facilitator. I work with individuals, teams and leaders in creative, entrepreneurial, and nonprofit fields to improve communication, find a true purpose, and deepen connection and meaning. If you enjoyed this post, share it with a friend! And I’d love it if you would subscribe to my email list, below.