What’s the Worst That Can Happen?
After I bombed that speech, my first instinct was to blame myself. How could I have let my nerves get the best of me? This is typical of women who face setbacks, research has found. When a woman screws up, she is likely to question her abilities or skills. But when a man screws up, he often points to outside factors that contributed to the mistake — such as a hot room, a phone ringing in the audience or a poor sound system.
Part of the reason this kind of self-blame is such a problem is it that it can inhibit women from taking risks in the future. If you’re going to be convinced you are fundamentally flawed every time you fall short, why wouldn’t you steer clear of uncertainty and play it safe?
Carol Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford, calls this the “fixed mindset” — the belief that failure is a dead end instead of a stop on the road to improvement. What you want to have instead of a fixed mindset is a “growth mindset” — the ability to see failure as an opportunity to learn.
I advise my students to ask themselves the following questions when they’re hesitant to take a risk:
- What’s the worst that can happen?
- Then, can you deal with that outcome? What resources do you have to handle it?
- What are some possible benefits of your failure, even if the situation doesn’t work out?
For me, the worst outcome was that they wouldn’t invite me back to speak again, or that they would mention my debacle to someone else. Could I deal with that? I wouldn’t be happy about it, but I could manage. Meanwhile, I tried to focus on how this failure could make me a better person — perhaps more empathetic to my students, many of whom suffer from anxiety, makingme a more relatable and effective teacher. Being nervous about returning to the podium also pushed me to tighten up my lecture in ways I probably wouldn’t have otherwise.
You Are More Than Your Mistake
I may have bombed that speech, but I have also aced a lot of other speeches. I know this, and yet it became hard for me to remember in the moment. Instead, I was laser-focused on what I’d done wrong, scanning the faces in the audience, imagining all of the ways they were judging me.
This kind of distorted thinking is common, but there are ways to stop yourself from engaging in it. In my case, I reminded myself that I’d given a speech earlier in the day to a different group of students, some of whom told me I was the best speaker they’d seen at the school. This was my third time speaking there, and I’d been invited back for a reason.
You’ve also had a series of successes or you wouldn’t be so upset by a setback. Try to remind yourself what those successes are to soothe yourself after a misstep. The point is not to pretend a mistake didn’t happen, it’s to remember you are more than your mistake.