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“A New Way To Look At ‘Failure'”



Recently in Toronto, Ashley Good put on the inaugural “Fail Forward” Conference. I read about it in the National Post and love the idea. It is about teaching people that it is okay to fail. This kind of event is long overdue. Too long society has lived with the myth revering the overconfident. I say it is a myth because in my psychotherapy practice I have found overconfidence arrogance as merely the other side of the same coin as the imposter syndrome. What seems like worlds apart actually come from the same source. It’s like seeing your city’s baseball team in a home and an away uniform – same team but different uniform.

Although imposter syndrome is not a medically diagnosable disorder, it is a psychological phenomenon where despite evidence to the contrary, people don’t believe they have earned the position they are in. In short, they believe they are frauds.

The symptoms of the imposter syndrome sound very similar to what Dr. Martin Seligman describes in his definition of a pessimist. When pessimists make a mistake or “fail” in some way, they often describe the event through the eyes of the 3 Ps – they make it Personal, they say this kind of failure is Pervasive in their life and they believe it is Permanent and won’t change. They do the opposite when they have a success. They think it is external to their talents, eg, “good timing”, they believe it is temporary and that their success won’t last, which is why they believe that one day they will be caught as a fraud. These sentiments are seen in the way many who suffer from this syndrome explain their success: “I just got lucky and it likely won’t happen again.”

At first it was believed that this affected mostly women but it is likely as many men suffer from this. I believe one of the reasons pessimists believe this is because of the way our society and our education system looks at success and failure. We define success as good and a worthy ideal to strive for. And we define failure as bad and something to avoid at all costs. These definitions are outdated and have done more damage than good.

Many optimists become optimists for a number of reasons – genetic, how their primary caregivers modeled how they dealt with setbacks, and whether or not they were discriminated against in their formative years. However there is also another element.

Paradoxically, some people become optimists because of all of the “failures” they have experienced.

Let me explain…

We all fail. By fail i mean we all make mistakes. It is part of the human experience. And I don’t just mean once in a while. We humans make mistakes on a regular basis. Just think about your average day. How many times have you forgotten your keys or a name of an acquaintance? How often do you misplace an item or go downstairs and forgot why you went there? How many of you forgot to pay a bill on time or were late with a credit card payment?  How many times have you said something you shouldn’t have said or didn’t say something when you should have. How many times have you said or done the wrong thing in a social situation or to a colleague? How often have you mispelled a word, misread an email or misinterpreted what someone meant by a comment? I could go on but you get the point. I know I do these things, and more. Just ask my kids. Children have a great way to see your mistakes and point them out to you.

Getting back to the optimist, if a person is told that mistakes are her greatest teacher and they will help her grow as a person, then she will develop a healthy attitude toward failure. She will probably take more risks than those who fear failure. The more risks she takes, the more  mistakes and successes she will have and the more confident she will become.

Contrast this with a person who fears failure because he has been told that failure is bad and shameful. She will avoid taking many risks and consequently, lose out on many opportunities for growth. That will make her more unconfident in his abilities. And when she does have a failure she will likely blow it out of proportion because she doesn’t have a lot of experience with failuing!

“Failure” isn’t the problem. It is society’s condemnation of failure that is the real issue.

It can even be seen in how we define the words. Look how the online Webster’s dictionary defines these terms:

Fail: To be wanting; to fall short; to become deficient in any measure or degree up to total absence; to be lacking;

Failure – an event that does not accomplish its intended purpose; a person with a record of failing; someone who loses consistently.

Not very flattering, to say the least. With this definition we are all “failures” because as i stated earlier, we all fail, daily. In addition, nowhere in the definition is learning stated or implied. It implies that if you fail or are a failure then your dye is cast in life and you cannot change.

We need a new outlook on failing. That is why I have created a new word:  “flopportunity©”. I submitted it to Wikipedia and Webster’s online dictionary but they rejected it. (I guess I had a flopportunity). So I took my Webster’s hardcopy edition and literally cut out the word, “failure” and pasted in the new word, “flopportunity©”. Here is how it reads now:

Failure:  obsolete – see Flopportunity


Pronunciation: \ˈflop-por-tunity\ Function: noun

Plural: flopportunities

 A chance to pause and reflect on an unwanted outcome to learn how to avoid this in the future and explore novel strategies to promote growth. It implies a continuous learning process as opposed to the finality implicated in the word, “failure”. It changes the emotional impact of a setback and allows one to improve and strengthen their position.

E.g., The player had a sporting flopportunity when he shot wide of the open goal. By using the word  ‘flopportunity’ his coach was able to point out what he could do differently next time, whereas ‘failure’ would focus on what he did wrong. This instilled hope in the player’s mind and gave him a chance for redemption later in the game. 

I am not saying to go out and intentionally flop. You (and I) will do that on our own thank you very much. It is just part of life. When it happens I suggest begin calling it by a different name – flopportunity. Words are powerful and this relabelling of an archaic concept can help you subconsciously change your attitude to risk, learning and growth to a confident AND flawed human being. The real imposter is the one who believes he does not fail.

Please leave a comment on #flopportunity. I look forward to hearing your comments.

P.S. for all of those who have noticed my spelling errors, you need not comment. I know I made some but for the purpose of this post I didn’t spell-check it. If you are having trouble getting past those errors, you would really benefit from using the new word and putting it into practice.






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