About a year ago I was just starting a new job. I was fresh out of school, thousands of miles from all my friends and family, and feeling a bit anxious and under-qualified. After a couple days, a guy I was working gave me a bit of advice, which went something like this:
"You're going to screw up."
(I didn't like the direction this was going, but it got better)
"…Everybody screws up. It's just a fact of the industry, and a fact of life. I once accidentally sent a test email to 250,000 people. He (pointing across the room) accidentally deleted the entire live database for a website. It happens to everybody, and it's going to happen to you. So don't worry about it too much."
To be clear, he wasn't promoting recklessness or unnecessary risk-taking. He still encouraged me to be careful and double-check my work. But we cannot live our lives, tempering our efforts for fear that we're going to screw up. We cannot treat our mini-catastrophe's as pits of doom to avoid at all costs.
Why? Because the cost is way too high. I can't think of anything worth doing that isn't rife with uncertainty and potential pitfalls. Developing the ability to navigate those pitfalls, take the hit every now and then, and bounce back quickly is more valuable than drifting through the safe zone, paralyzed with fear.
We've got a rich vocabulary for when things aren't working. Your team is dysfunctional, or your car is jacked, or you website is b0rked, or you plan is hosed. Your client is unreasonable, your technology is unreliable, your manager is incompetent, and your goals are inconsistent.
What I'd rather see us look for, talk about, and replicate are the situations when things are working. Those people who succeed despite their circumstances, the moments where teams are united and effective, the projects that make it and the places where results exceed expectations. Chip and Dan Heath had a word for these situations. They called them "Bright Spots".
You'd be surprised how often we focus on the dysfunctional parts when we'd be more effective looking for bright spots and how to replicate them. Subway's 5-dollar footlong, was once just a success story in a single Subway location, until someone clever looked for the bright spots, found it, and started trying to replicate it elsewhere. You know how that story ends.
Somewhere in every failure you're pushing through right now, is a bright spot ready to be discovered and spread.
In our lives there's a lot of social pressure to be excellent. We put our best foot forward in introductions, work interactions, job interviews, parties, and a variety of other new situations. It's what we naturally do.
It's terrifying to be real. To expose who you really are, and how you really live, and what you really value, because if you do that and you are rejected then the rejection feels so personal. We'd rather put forward personas… those images we want to project. Then if you're rejected, its just because you chose the wrong persona. A simple mistake, no big deal, and the "real" you is deep inside, safely insulated from pain.
But here's the thing... people crave authenticity. Countless years of human interaction and adaptation have developed our species into authenticity detecting machines. We sense it. We can feel it in our gut, even if we can't see in consciously (just ask Malcolm Gladwell). And when we see somebody (a boss, a role model, an applicants, a politician, a teacher… anyone!) who chooses to be vulnerable enough to be real, we are drawn to them. It's so refreshing.
Sometimes being real is not an option. You may not be who you want to be right now, or you may need to work through some issues first. If you can't be real, that's ok, but you pay a price. You lose opportunities for friendship, understanding, and the liberation of being authentic. You learn healthier ways of handling criticism. You have conversations that you wouldn't have had before, about things that really matter to you.
So if you can't be real right now, then see if you can get to a place where you can be more real, with more people, more often.