The system that I use to send these emails has a helpful feature which shows you how many people read your messages. I don't usually pay attention to popularity metrics, but it was hard to ignore the fact that only 36% of recipients opened my last email. I guess the subject line was not compelling, or maybe the same summer slowdown that hits businesses in August applies to email newsletters, too?
Anyway, the good news is that you, dear reader, are one of a small and elite group!
This week's essay is drawn from recent experience — I hope it is useful, or at least amusing.
Thank you (seriously!) for reading,
I'm not an expert on failure because the truth is, I don't fail often. I'm not being arrogant; the reason I don't fail often is that I try to avoid situations where failure is likely. I like to keep my arms and legs inside the car at all times. I like to know how things are going to turn out, I plan for the worst, I over-prepare (and to be quite honest, I sometimes just don't do things if they seem treacherous or too exacting).
But on occasion I stick my neck out, and usually it goes okay, and sometimes it doesn't.
On Monday I heard from the International Coach Federation that the 30-minute coaching session recording that I submitted in my application for Associate Certified Coach certification did not pass their assessment. I ticked some of their "this is what coaching looks like" boxes, but not enough of them for the ICF to give me their imprimatur.
The first thing that happens when you screw up is all the feelings. You have to deal with all the feelings. It might help to name them. For me, I felt frustrated, disappointed, a little bit humiliated, rejected, embarrassed.
You might also take a few quiet minutes to pay attention to your body and notice how the feelings are showing up. Are they in your belly? Your shoulders? Chest? Is it tightness? An ache? Burning? Sometimes just noticing the feelings in your body can help them release a little bit.
After you've located and named your feelings (or maybe before or during — I'm not an expert, remember — but definitely before you decide what to do next), take time to soothe them.
Try to be gentle with yourself. Dr Kristin Neff is an expert on self-compassion, and she recommends talking yourself through a difficult situation as if you were speaking to a friend. So, not so much, "you're such an idiot, how is it that you are the only person on the planet who failed to get this basic entry-level certification" and more "it's okay to screw up", "this is a setback, you will recover", or my personal favourite, "in five years you will look back on this and laugh". (It's amazing how many things that's true of.)
Dr Brené Brown says that shame cannot survive empathy, and she recommends sharing your experience with trusted people in your life. Well, I told LinkedIn. I chose LinkedIn because I am connected with a lot of coaches there, so I knew they would know what I was talking about. I had also seen a lot of people victoriously posting their new ACC badges, and I had a feeling people might appreciate a more interesting story about the potholes along the way.
This is what I posted:
Well, I failed the ICF coach certification assessment. I guess I made a bad choice about which recorded session to submit. I didn't really understand the criteria, to be honest.
I admit it hurts. It seems like all my classmates are proudly posting their ACC certification badges here and I don't recall seeing a single post about not passing. Am I the only person who ever failed the assessment? Probably not, but people seem to only post their victories on social media.
Anyway, I post this in solidarity with anyone else who started the week with a disappointment, anyone who thought something would be easier than it turned out to be, anyone who changed careers and wonders if they made a stupid mistake. Things will turn around, we will have our victories, we will figure it out.
Posting had a few benefits. First, it forced me to organize what happened into something of a narrative. I had to start with what happened and why, and finish with a hopeful conclusion. Second, because I hate to post a self-absorbed whinge, I found a way to connect my experience to the experiences of others, and added a note of encouragement and optimism.
According to Kristin Neff, this is another part of self-compassion: to connect your experience to the greater human condition: Everyone screws up. Everyone has disappointments. Everyone doubts themselves.
Another effect I was hoping for from my post, and which I received to an unexpected degree, was sympathy. The response was huge — almost 10,000 views — and overwhelmingly kind, supportive and appreciative of my vulnerability.
(To be honest, "vulnerability" has never been hard for me: I'm both very sensitive and an over-sharer, so I have been spilling my guts on the Internet since I was seventeen. With age, I've just gotten better at it — more measured, more helpful. But I understand that it's hard for other people, so I'm happy to set an example.)
Another tool that I like to use in the face of failure or disappointment is humour. The sooner I can turn a shitty experience into a funny story, the better. (Yes, I'm the one cracking jokes at funerals.)
Humour is a powerful tool for turning around a misadventure for a few reasons. First, the process of converting a bad experience into a funny story forces a new perspective. To make something funny you have to step outside it and find what's absurd or ironic about it. It's very hard to do that while you're still marinating in the pain.
Second, telling a funny story to someone allows me to be of service — I've amused them. It restores me to a better version of myself: funny Amy, not sad failing Amy.
My LinkedIn post served the same purpose: I turned my experience into a gesture of solidarity and support for other people going through disappointment, so I was able to be of service, however modest.
Don't discount the soothing effects of basic, Instagrammable self-care. A warm bath, a walk in the woods, a cuddle with your favourite mammal. Maybe some ice cream or wine, if that will actually make you feel better. (You know yourself! Don't use a strategy or substance that you know you can't manage or that will make things worse.)
Notice that all these self-care activities take you back to your body — remember your body from the paragraph up there about feeling your feelings? Yeah, it's back. I think the key to getting value out of these soothing behaviours is to pay attention to them. Notice the fragrance of the bath water (if you use a Lush bath bomb you won't have to work too hard on that) and the warmth of the water on your skin; savour the melting ice cream or the flavours of the wine. Notice the effect on your body. Does the tightness in your shoulders loosen in the hot water? Does the knot in your stomach untie when the sugar hits your taste buds? Enjoy that sensation.
Okay, feelings managed! Time for strategy! (Thank goodness.)
Obviously you have to figure out what went wrong. (Right? I guess you could just blast through and get on with your life, but you probably wouldn't be reading this if you were inclined to do that.) A sequence of events and choices lead to this failure, and you need to figure out, as much as possible, why you made the choices you made and what to do differently next time.
At least, I think so. This is where I really exit the realm of seasoned expertise and wander into personal experience and conjecture. I'm not a crisis strategy expert. So I'm just going to talk about what I did, and maybe it will generalize in a helpful way.
This is what I figure happened with my ACC application. You're supposed to submit a recording of a 30-minute coaching session. I record most of my sessions, but also most of my sessions are an hour, and it's hard to find one which ticks all the "yes this is coaching" boxes and can also be cut down to 30 minutes. And once you have a good session, you have to transcribe it and edit the transcription. It's kind of a hassle.
I'm not a person who was graced at birth with an overabundance of energy and focus. The energy and focus fairies were busy, I guess, and sent the "can sing the high notes" and "thick hair" fairies in their stead. As a result, I typically don't give 110%. I'm choosy about where I spend my energy and attention. My tongue-in-cheek shorthand for that is that I'm lazy, but it's actually a finely tuned strategy that allows me to focus my energy on the things which matter to me. (Probably most laziness is, but that's a newsletter topic for another day.)
Things like certifications, assessments, and exams get exactly as much effort as I think they require, and no more. A policy like that is bound to result in the odd failure, mathematically. No matter how carefully I calibrate my efforts, I'll overshoot sometimes and undershoot other times.
In this case, I had a few recorded sessions lying around after practicum, and I figured one of them would be good enough for the ACC application.
And that's important too: "figured one would be good enough". I actually didn't do much research into the requirements for the certification. My school sets a high bar, assessing our sessions at the level of the intermediate certification rather than the entry-level certification I was applying for, so I just figured that the session would be fine.
So in summary, two things happened here:
- I chose to not put much effort into the certification application, but also
- I did not do enough research to calibrate the amount of effort required.
So how badly did I screw up? I didn't betray my values, I didn't harm anybody by omission or commission, I didn't uncover a profound error in my view of the world or myself. I cost myself the money I paid to submit my application, which is a bit of a pisser, but all in all, it turns out this isn't a calamity, or even a catastrophe. More of a mishap.
The gifts of failure, of course, are the lessons we learn along the way. In my case:
- I refined and recommitted to my philosophy of conservation of energy and attention, but also
- I learned that I need to be more attentive when I'm deciding how much effort to put into something.
- I learned that I need to figure out what the requirements are for the ACC before I try again.
- I learned that it's not a cakewalk to get ICF-certified, which makes me feel better about the importance of certification and what it means to be an ICF coach.
- I learned again that people are kind and sweet, and that they really (like, really) appreciate it when you share your failures and disappointments.
With your learnings in place, you can make a plan. For me, I intend to apply for certification again. This time I will record a few 30-minute coaching sessions, which will be better because I'm a better coach now, and also because I'll select more carefully and submit the best of them. This time I'm quite confident I will succeed. And if I don't, I guess I'll come back and read this newsletter!
Come September I'll be offering free coaching a couple of ways. As I said above, I want to record a few 30-minute coaching sessions, so I'll be reaching out to former and current clients with that offer. As a dedicated (and elite!) reader of this newsletter, the offer is open to you, as well. Reply to this email if you would like to set a date!
I'm also looking for a team (meaning a group of two or more people working together toward a shared goal) to coach using the shiny new team coaching skills I'm learning in the Living Systems training. Again, this coaching will be free of charge, so it's a great opportunity for a non-profit or community group. Feel free to pass my name on or let me know if you know someone who might be interested.
Last time I promised to report back on how my restful August long weekend plan is going, and… it's a work in progress. At first I tried to rest, chill, relax, lie around, but somehow I ended the weekends more fatigued than I started them. So I mixed in some satisfying home maintenance jobs (accomplishment!), bike rides (adventure!), and other humans (humans!) and that seems to be better. At this rate I'll have figured it out by the end of the month. 🤷🏻♀️
Fun and Interesting
- People who are socially awkward make other people feel uncomfortable. They don’t feel uncomfortable themselves. Something of a cri de coeur from Lindsay Weisner, a therapist who is tired of clients mis-identifying themselves as "socially awkward". Stop telling me you are socially awkward [psychologytoday.com]
- Attention is scarce and fragile. This is a pretty old post from computer scientist Cal Newport on digital minimalism, but it's an idea I'm revisiting these days, and it resonates with what I wrote above about being careful how I spend my attention. On Digital Minimalism [calnewport.com]
- Another newsletter, another way to pretend I'm travelling. The idea of Geoguess'r is that you are plopped into Google Streetview and you have to click around and guess where in the world you are. It's satisfying when you're right and fascinating when you're wrong. Geoguess'r has also been around for years, and lately has been monetized to the eyeballs, but there's still a free version. [geoguessr.com]
Thank you for reading this far!
If you like what you read, hit reply and let me know, or forward it and let someone else know. If you have questions or comments, hit reply and let me know. If you have seen something interesting out there, hit reply and let me know. Are you seeing a trend here? If so... hit reply and let me know! I look forward to hearing from you. ❤️