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Why Do So Many of Us Dream of Failure?
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Why Do So Many of Us Dream of Failure?

Reframing failure as your key to growth and success.

By Tea Hoffmann

The COVID-19 crisis has caused many of us to dream more vividly, a phenomenon that has been widely reported. These dreams may be due to anxiety or a change in sleep patterns as many adjust to working at home.

Frankly, I wish I were having those vivid dreams. I continue to be plagued with a recurring dream — and it does not fit neatly into the top recurring dreams cited by AmeriSleep. It does comfort me to know, though, that many adults also experience recurring dreams, and some have had the same dream since they were children. When I mentioned my recurring dream to a few lawyer coaching clients, I was surprised (and a bit relieved) to hear that many of them have the same type of dream as I do.

Mine begins with a certified letter from the Board of Law Examiners informing me that, upon an arbitrary review of my application, they have discovered I failed one of my final semester courses and should not have sat for the bar exam. My heart begins to race as I realize that if I failed a course, I should not have been licensed.  Worse still, I have been practicing for over three decades and must now disclose that I am an imposter!

I wake up in a panic before I think … wait. I did graduate. I did pass the bar. My whole career is not a sham. I have a place at this table. I belong. This is just fear speaking to me — no, shouting at me!

Fearing Failure

Fearing failure, both consciously and subconsciously, is a normal part of the human experience. A few years ago, the Sorbonne University in Paris published a study in which more than 700 people sitting for a medical school entrance exam were surveyed about their dreams the preceding night. Of the 700 tested, more than 60% dreamed about the exam. Of those who dreamed about the exam, 78% reported that their dreams were negative. The most commonly reported themes spanned insufficient preparation, logistical issues (like not being able to find the exam room) and arriving late.

But here is the really interesting part. The researchers discovered that students who dreamed about the exam the night before — whether those dreams were positive or negative — performed better than those who did not. This was also true of the period leading up to the exam: The more frequently the students reported dreaming of the exam during the term that preceded it, the stronger their scores.

It seems the subconscious fear of the exam was a motivating factor for these students. If that is indeed true, then I propose that we can change the fear narrative and use the fear of failure to catalyze self-improvement.

It will take some work, but if you can reframe failure, embrace a broader perspective, and accept your vulnerability as a strength rather than a liability, I believe it will lead to a more successful, connected, fulfilling career.

Reframing Failure to Catalyze Personal and Professional Growth

Rather than viewing failure as the opposite of success, can we view it as less crushing, defining or cataclysmic? Can we accept it as merely a slight dip in the very long curve that represents our career trajectories?

To do so requires some mental reframing. We tend to think of both our successes and our failures as defining us. However, we are not the sum of our various accomplishments and setbacks. When we view these things as our identity, we cripple ourselves every time we struggle or fail at something. Conversely, seeing the various blips and dips as learning experiences catalyzes growth.

When we embrace this paradigm shift, we not only neutralize failure and thus the fear that plagues us, but we also develop resilience. Over time, we become less risk-averse. If failure isn’t quite so scary to us, then we stop calculating our every move to avoid it. We stop saying no to new things out of fear and no longer miss out on potentially rewarding experiences.

Embracing a Broader Perspective

When you face a personal setback — whether in real time or subconsciously in a dream —  step back and broaden your lens. Putting failure into perspective requires recognizing and acknowledging that you are not alone. Some of the most successful and beloved people in the world have built their careers upon a pile of failures.

  • Oprah Winfrey was fired from her very first television job.
  • Walt Disney ran several failed companies before launching Disney.
  • The very first book in the Harry Potter series was rejected 12 times.
  • Before becoming the 16th president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln failed in business and lost multiple elections for the state legislature and Congress.

So next time you fail, remember you’re in great company.

Channeling Our Humanity, Accepting Our Vulnerability

People like those they perceive as human. They appreciate knowing that you are imperfect because they are, too. Knowing that you manage your own host of challenges and setbacks makes you relatable personally and professionally.

Unfortunately, many professionals (especially lawyers!) believe admitting to their imperfections is inappropriate or makes them seem weak. So, they hide their mistakes and avoid discussing their challenges. Let me propose an alternative school of thought: The more you share a holistic, human version of yourself, the more comfortable others will feel confiding in you, trusting you and respecting your authority as a professional and a leader. The power that stems from this vulnerability will impact colleagues within your firm or organization as well as your clients. And who doesn’t want clients who trust their lawyers deeply?

Facing Failure Positively

Learning to embrace failure as an opportunity rather than a maligned hit to your career takes work. It is like strengthening a muscle. However, when you feel yourself sliding into fear, remember the Sorbonne study. Fear of failure is a tool that can help you work toward unprecedented growth. So sit back, breathe and remember: The fear of failure can be your new ticket to a successful, connected, fulfilling career.

Illustration ©iStockPhoto.com

Also on Attorney at Work …

“5 Ways to Reduce Anxiety in a Worldwide Pan(dem)ic” 

“Your Chronic Stress: It’s a Matter of Confidence, Not Competence”

“Pushing Past Fear and Failure (from ’50 Lessons for Women Lawyers’)”

“In Search of a Perfect Record: The Price of Trying to Be the Best”

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Tea Hoffmann Tea Hoffmann

Tea Hoffmann is managing principal at Law Strategy Corp., a consulting and coaching practice focused on helping lawyers and firms make the changes necessary to become more profitable, strategic and focused. LSC provides law firm training, coaching, retreat presentations and strategic planning. Tea is a former practicing lawyer who has served as a GC for a publicly traded company, a CBDO at an AmLaw 100 firm, and chief strategy officer at an AmLaw 200 firm. She is a Fellow of the College of Law Practice Management. Tea also serves in the Tennessee Army National Guard where she is a major with over 20 years of service. Email Tea at teahoffmann@lawstrategycorp.com.

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