I wrote two books on resilience for parents of autistic kids with my wonderful coauthor Dr Emma Goodall in 2017 and 2018. When we pitched the books to my publisher we gave some chapter examples including one on ‘failing successfully.’ The publisher loved this idea and we got a contract. Failing successfully is a concept I have been talking about for a while mostly because – similarly to many other autistic people – I really struggle with mistakes, setbacks and failure.
Less than a week ago I made a mistake. This is what prompted this post as I wanted to connect with others who also struggle with worry around mistakes and failure. My mistake revolved around not adequately de-identifying some people that I said I had issues with. A friend of one of the people contacted me and explained that the examples were not adequately de-identified as she could make out who one of them was. Apparently the person themselves could work out who they were. It was an absolute disaster! Of course I took down the post and rewrote it minus the examples and hopefully nothing untoward happened after that but I was absolutely horrified. I felt guilty for being part of the problem rather than part of the solution – even though it was unintentional. I imagined how I would feel if someone posted negative comments about me and I worried that it would escalate and I would have legal issues. As a perfectionist, making a mistake is always difficult. However when I unpacked it, this incident actually had some elements of it which were quite useful. The main one being that I learned from it. If I am describing anyone in writing in unfavourable terms I will be very careful not to add any identifying features. In fact I will check everything I write that references others very carefully to ensure that I am not inadvertently criticising anyone or being disrespectful. These are good learnings and an example of what I see as successful failure. Something unpleasant had happened which was my fault but I immediately worked to rectify the issue and I have learned some useful lessons from it which will improve my work in the future and avoid the same issue happening again. So while it was very stressful and I felt extremely guilty, it can also be seen as a success.
As autistic people we often struggle with perfectionism and fear of failure. The anxiety related to this can mean we don’t do things which we would actually enjoy or do well. Perfectionism can stop us in our tracks. I knew somebody at university who wrote an amazing essay but didn’t hand it in until it was vastly overdue because it wasn’t perfect. Had she handed it in on time I imagine she would have gained a high distinction but she had to keep working on it to make it perfect. By the time she submitted it, it was so overdue that she barely scraped a pass despite it being a stunning piece of writing. I have similar reflections from my own life but in relation to employment. In 2001 I got a dishwashing job and was so anxious about potentially making a mistake that the anxiety triggered a psychotic episode. I was unable to work again for years and had to instigate a series of controlled challenges around employment in order to work at all.
The worry about making a mistake can absolutely defeat us. The successful failing model is not about saying it is OK to make mistakes with consequences or that it doesn’t matter if you make a mistake. Often it DOES matter. However the successful failing model is all about using experiences of failure and setbacks to build an understanding which will help you to avoid the same issue in the future. It is also about building your confidence and resilience. It can be soul-destroying to make an error if you dwell on it and just feel guilty. Seeing errors differently and as a learning experience and seeing setbacks as an inevitable part of life at times is a far better approach.
The key is to reflect that everyone makes mistakes, that mistakes can foster learning and understanding and that you can use the learnings from a mistake to improve how you approach things in the future. Autistic people in particular tend to need this skill as we often struggle a lot with perfectionism and anxiety around errors. It is possible to instil this understanding with autistic kids as well. I wish I had the knowledge of successful failing as a kid and a young adult.