Failure: It’s How You Define It                       

By Joan R. Bullock

You fail at nothing that you do not choose to label as a failure.  While this statement is appropriate for anyone who questions their ability to be successful, I address it primarily to women.  Statistics demonstrate that, despite their increased numbers in the legal profession, women still suffer inequitable treatment as recipients of the benefits of employment and lag behind their male counterparts in positions of leadership.

Much has been written about the barriers confronted by women climbing the legal career ladder.  Firm culture, company policies, work-life (im)balance, compensation disparities, and discrimination frequently top lists of barriers to female lawyers’ upward career trajectory.  Catalyst, an organization that assists businesses with their talent management challenges, opined from its calculation of the rate of change in the gender gap in law that it will “take more than a woman lawyer’s lifetime to achieve equality.”

With such an unsettling estimation of the rate of progress, what can women lawyers do to insure career fulfillment in their lifetime?  The barriers to career success listed above are all external forces acting upon a professional woman’s effort to succeed.  Progress to date has resulted in steps to diminish the negative effects of these forces. Yet, the state of entrenchment of these external barriers prevent their complete demise, resulting in women not realizing full, unhindered participation in the benefits of legal employment in their lifetime.

In addition to the external barriers to women succeeding, anecdotal evidence exists that men and women define and approach failure differently. Generally speaking, women tend to see failure as a personal fault, while men tend to see failure as a result of challenges.  The former results in women being inclined to forego opportunities for fear of failure, and the latter results in men sizing up and acting to overcome or sidestep the challenge.  Defining the contours of failure and determining how this definition aligns with the awareness of your abilities has a lot to do with self-perception.  This self-perception is influenced to a large extent by social and cultural norms.

Research demonstrates that women are generally more risk averse than men.  Interestingly, a study by Uri Gneezy, Kenneth L. Leonard, and John A. List, titled, Gender Differences in Competition: Evidence from a Matrilineal and a Patriarchal Society, found that women can be just as competitive and willing to take on risk as men, provided the society in which they live supports this behavior.  An implication from this study is that the willingness to take on risk cannot be explained merely by considering the gender of the actor.  Social and cultural norms instead inform women to “be nice,” “follow the rules,” “go for what’s certain”, and engage in safe activities. Men are informed to “go for it,” “push the envelope,” and engage in activities that test their masculinity and not “act (play or cry) like a girl.”

Without diminishing the work that society and firms must do to remove the external barriers to women’s progress in the workplace, women can increase their probability of career success by changing how and what they think about one particular internal barrier: failure. Failure is an internal barrier because it is a self-defined limitation that individuals place on themselves, hindering their personal and professional growth.

Changing this self-defined limitation begins by:

  • Knowing your purpose.  The more you know about yourself and what your core values are, the better you can determine what you want. This clarity of purpose helps you believe in yourself, and keeps you focused and moving toward your goal when (not if) obstacles arise.
  • Not waiting to be chosen.  Woody Allen famously said that 80% of success is just showing up.  If you know where you want to go, then step out, talk to, and get known by those who are doing what you want to do.  Let them know what you want and ask how you can be of benefit to them. Borrowing from Sheryl Sandberg, “lean in.”  This is your life we are talking about.
  • Making setbacks work for you.  Be a learner.  Failures are not permanent conditions.  See failed attempts and other setbacks as opportunities to learn.  Ask what you can learn from the situation.  Oscar nominee Gabourey Sidibe, who starred as Precious in the movie of the same name,  said:

I live my life because I dare.  I dare to show up when everyone else might hide their faces and hide their bodies in shame….I’m grateful…to my fifth-grade class because if they hadn’t made my cry, I wouldn’t be able to cry on cue now.  If I hadn’t been told I was garbage, I wouldn’t have learned how to show people I’m talented…[I]f everyone had always laughed at my jokes, I wouldn’t have figured out how to be so funny, [and if]they hadn’t told me I was ugly, I never would have searched for my beauty.

  • Maintaining your focus.  Most failures result not from lack of ability but from lack of continued focus.   Broken focus will cause you to give up rather than persevere. Set only a few goals so as not to distract from your purpose and prioritize your goals to affirm your resolve.  Take a cue from 91-year-old Henry Bloch, co-founder of H&R Block, the largest tax preparation company in the world:

[T]he first eight years it was a struggle to survive.  But because he had been a C-student who had to study hard just to maintain those grades, he said, he was used to working all the time.  “The reason I didn’t give up was because I didn’t think anyone would hire me,” he said half-jokingly.  “I figured I’d just keep at it.”

  • Changing the cause to create the desired effect.  There is no effect without a cause.  If you do not like the effect, change the cause. W. Edwards Deming said, “Certainly we want good results, but management by results is not the way to get good results. Work on the causes of results.”  You change the cause by changing the system in which you operate. If the current system, complete with its external and internal barriers to your success, works against you, change it.  Even if it does not work against you, you can still improve on the system to your benefit. System development requires you to focus on the process to improvement.  Attention is spent developing the process – refining, honing, and improving your execution in order to reach your goal, whatever it may be.  Once the system is in place, your continual focus on the process, seeking improvement in the execution rather than on the outcome, will drive success. Look at champions in any endeavor and you will find that they excel because they commit themselves and operate under a system that requires continual personal improvement in the execution.  This focus on the execution, acting according to the plan of the system, is what increases confidence, and in turn increases the probability of not viewing failed attempts as failure.  Failed attempts are merely points on the progression line of improvement. The direct benefit of having and operating within a system customized to your success is that you will increase the probability of succeeding in your goal; the indirect benefit is that you can focus on the process of improving, i.e., your execution, rather than on the outcome.  This reduces the potential of a failed outcome darkening your outlook on your future success.  If your system is robust and you believe in it, like a champion you will not see failing as a personal deficit.  Instead, failing would be an expected statistical outcome from which you can learn as you refine and hone your system.  Critical components of your system should include
    • Clarity of the goal (outcome)
    • Criteria for accomplishing goal (timeline, education, experience, etc.)
    • Success measures and benchmarks (accountability checkpoints)
    • Network – which can overlap among the following groups
      • Personal – composed of those you trust and in whom you can confide.  You can trust them to hold you accountable for what you set out to accomplish.
      • Tactical – composed of those who can inform you on execution.   They can give you insight on the political landscape in a law firm environment, tell you about the unwritten rules in the workplace, and help you develop your skills in practice.
      • Strategic – composed of those who can give you insight and perspective. They can help you develop your vision of purpose, and connect you with others who can help you plan and position yourself.


About the Author

Joan R. Bullock is a professional development and business adviser, author, and the associate dean for teaching and faculty development and professor of law at Florida A&M University College of Law.

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