Are You Too Smart To Fail?

photo courtesy of Fabian Blank, Unsplash, CC
photo from Fabian Blank, Unsplash, CC

You don’t like to fail. In fact, you may be terrified of failure. And you have trouble not seeing any minor mistake as a monumental failure. Right? Am I in your head? Yeah? It’s pretty wild in here. So many monkeys.

But what is failure? What are the advantages of failure? Why do I think you should start failing as soon as you can, especially if you’re a parent?

( Just so we’re clear. I’m not suggesting that you begin to fail, as in, become a serial killer. Or start a cocaine habit. Or forget to pick your kids up at school for several days. Just so we’re clear.)

You weren’t born afraid to fail. Watch a child learning to walk. Lots of failing. Early learning includes much trial and much error. When did you become too big to fail?

And now, do you worry that you’re too smart to fail?

If you were a fast learner, if you were an early reader, if you used words like “entomology” when you were five, if you were told over and over how smart you were,  if there were piles of praise every time you aced a test, then, you may have felt that your abilities and your achievements were what made you worthy, what made you lovable. You may have concluded that anything less than perfect was a failure and failure meant that you were not such a smart person after all.

It’s time to start failing.

You don’t have to fail like Elon Musk and blow up a rocket. You don’t have to fail like Steve Jobs and be fired from the company that you created. Small “failures” will be just fine, for starters. Excellence instead of perfection, for example. A “B” on your final exam. A loud emotional outburst in the middle of a board meeting.

Eventually, you may even rethink the word failure. Instead, you’ll make a mistake, an error, a gaffe, a blunder. Small stuff. No big deal. And even if you experience an actual failure, you’ll know it’s something that you do, not something that you are.

Trust me. You’ll still be smart. You’ll still be lovable. And, you will learn much more from failure than you’ll ever learn from success.

Your children will thank you.

And your stand-up comedy routines? Well, they’ll be so much funnier.

“You gotta learn to love when you’re failing…The embracing of that, the discomfort of failing in front of an audience, leads you to penetrate through the fear that blinds you…”    Stephen Colbert


To my darling blogEEs: (We’ve known each other for two years now, I think I can call you darling.) Yes, I’ve been blogging now for two years this month. I’m so grateful to all of you for reading, sharing, and commenting. Tell us how you feel about failure and if you’re able to accept and appreciate your blunders. When have you had a good outcome from a failure?

Author: Paula Prober

I’m a psychotherapist and consultant in private practice based in Eugene, Oregon. I specialize in international consulting with gifted adults and parents of gifted children. I’ve been a teacher and an adjunct instructor at the University of Oregon and a frequent guest presenter at Oregon State University and Pacific University. I’ve written articles on giftedness for the Eugene Register-Guard, the Psychotherapy Networker, Advanced Development Journal and online for psychotherapy dot net, Rebelle Society, Thrive, Introvert Dear, and Highly Sensitive Refuge. My first book, Your Rainforest Mind: A Guide to the Well-Being of Gifted Adults and Youth, is a collection of case studies of gifted clients along with many strategies and resources for gifted adults and teens. My second book, Journey Into Your Rainforest Mind: A Field Guide for Gifted Adults and Teens, Book Lovers, Overthinkers, Geeks, Sensitives, Brainiacs, Intuitives, Procrastinators, and Perfectionists is a collection of my most popular blog posts along with writing exercises for self-exploration and insight.

31 responses to “Are You Too Smart To Fail?”

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  1. If I’m So Smart, Why Do I Feel Like A Failure? | Your Rainforest Mind

    […] gifted. Never had been. You’d gotten by on your charm. Now charm wasn’t enough. You were a failure. Every little mistake, every question you couldn’t answer. […]

  2. Emily VR Avatar
    Emily VR

    I love this! Shifting from “perfectionism” to “excellence” is tough (not that I know anyone in my house who struggles with this… 🙂 ), but I agree completely. I love your examples, too. Thank you so much… saving for my kids to read! 🙂

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Glad you like it, Emily. I hope it helps your kids! Always good to hear from you.

  3. Sarah Avatar

    Curious about something. Much of what you wrote was widely applicable to me as a child. When so many things came easy to me, I just avoided the things that didn’t come easy. But 20 years later as an adult, I make mistakes all the time and have learned to adjust to that.

    What I haven’t adjusted to is letting myself emotional or relational mistakes. I am by no means perfect in these areas, but I spent way too many mental cycles trying to never say the wrong thing or miss a social cue. I hate confrontation and avoid at almost all cost, because I am convinced that every attempt is a failure on my part. If I had to guess what this relates to, the only thing that comes to mind is my extreme sensitivity. (So weird to be posting in a place where I don’t have to explain OEs or intensities.)

    Can you or anyone relate? Is this common or is there a connection I just haven’t made yet?

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      It would make sense that extreme sensitivity would be a factor in your concerns about saying the wrong thing or missing social cues. One thing to consider is that all people don’t have that level of sensitivity so they may be much less bothered by your “mistakes” than you are. They may not even notice some of the time. Make sense? Hating confrontation might also come from early experiences of painful disputes or people who weren’t good at disagreements so didn’t model healthy confrontation. Would that fit? Let’s see if anyone else has some other thoughts. Thanks for sharing, Sarah.

    2. Jonquil McDaniel Avatar
      Jonquil McDaniel

      I tend to feel a huge responsibility to others to not only maintain pleasant communications but also to set an example for them. I’ve had to relinquish this control. For some reason I find myself relating to many adults more like I would a child. And I really have to check myself on it and remind myself that they are adults now that are responsible for themselves. It may be parentification at its adult finest – my mom leaned on me emotionally and it resulted in me being the “adult” for her in a lot of situations. But it could be something connected to being gifted too… I’m somehow acutely aware of the limited self awareness in others around me, and careful to walk around them lest I throw out too many big words and or concepts and upset them somehow, anyhow….

      1. Paula Prober Avatar
        Paula Prober

        Good points, Jonquil. Thanks for adding your thoughts to the conversation.

  4. Jeff Avatar

    I will try to make a mistake by posting on the internet, although, as you say, mistakes are devastating.
    Every single one of your posts is an exact description of me! How do you know? How can you possibly be so insightful? As if you have been watching my whole life…Thank you so much for your blog, I have been “waiting” 60 years for some verification that I am not as mentally ill as everyone has always said! My first clue was passing the Mensa test. (Still not sure they didn’t make a mistake.) My second is your blog helping me to believe I am just different, not in a bad way. And that I am not alone.
    Thank you, thank you, thank you, you have a friend for life!

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      I’m so glad you’re reading Jeff and that it’s helping. Good to have a friend for life. Thank you!!

    2. Jonquil McDaniel Avatar
      Jonquil McDaniel

      I took the Mensa test too and passed. I’ve also been IQ tested and taken other advanced/intellectual testing. The Mensa test by far as the hardest, so it was no mistake. You are not crazy. I get called crazy too, and currently am trying to pinpoint a therapist that won’t write me off as bipolar because I have what they consider to be abnormally fast thoughts, I’m emotional and sensitive, and I have a traumatic past that has led to PTSD with a TON of highly sensitive triggers. At this point I’m starting to accept I may never be able to find a therapist that can handle the huge complications in me and my past. That does not mean however that I cannot continue working on myself. Help and feedback would be nice but I’m learning that I now have friends I can actually trust just as much with that. And no one person will ever be able to handle the gigantic volumes of commentary I can provide on everything, lol. So I’m being more mindful of how much I say.

      Everyone is different. Crazy no longer means you’re different, as psychology is learning to accept neuro diversity. It now literally means unable to function in a healthy and self supporting manner, and I’m sure if you’re in your 60s you’ve definitely proved your functionality in that by this point, lol.

  5. telperion1214 Avatar

    First, congratulations on your two-year anniversary of this blog, Paula! I don’t follow any other blogs with any regularity and I have to say that this one is interesting, informative and personal. All excellent qualities for a blog on giftedness!

    Failure has been a constant theme of my life. For the past 28 years I have lived with chronic illness that defies categorization. There have been many failures to return to normal health. Living with those failures has helped me to put my life on a more even keel. It has been the experience of trying something new, raising my hopes, having it not work, and crashing and burning emotionally that have taught me how to do this.

    It is a Native American concept that we are to make 30 – 50 mistakes per day. Each one is meant to put us in touch with Wakan Tanka or Great Spirit. Each mistake is an opportunity to connect with a gentle spirit. I have a gentle spirit within me that I can connect with when I make a mistake. I cannot say that I do so 30 – 50 times a day! LOL But I do appreciate the numbers because I clearly underestimated how many mistakes are “allowed” per day!

    Without mistakes and failure, how would I learn? I don’t learn as much from my successes, although I do build on those. Failure stands out more distinctly. I learn faster from failure. Perhaps that is its advantage.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      What a wonderful idea. Permission to make 30-50 mistakes per day! And a connection with a “gentle spirit.” Beautiful. Thank you.

    2. Ro Avatar

      Thank you for sharing this wisdom, Telperion.

  6. Jonquil McDaniel Avatar
    Jonquil McDaniel

    I wish my last company had been like that, but it was a lot of competition and back stabbing which I experienced first hand when some fellow employees that were above me and not even in the same department got a case of newbie envy and forced me to resign. Took me a year to understand why because I thought they liked me and I wasn’t trying to compete with anyone. The thing was I guess they thought I was showing more promise in their fields than they did, even though I was not in their fields. It’s very weird, and I don’t really want to work for a corporation any more after going through it. It’s too bad for them – if successful, I will one day become their competitor.

  7. Liz Avatar

    Hi Paula!

    You are so right about some of our failures giving us the best stories. When I was presenting to my company’s Board of Directors for the first time, my boss gave me explicit instructions not to correct him or his boss if they said anything incorrect. Gee, I wonder why he thought it was important to mention that? LOL!

    So, I was trying very hard to give them the space to be 98% accurate without correcting them to get to 100%. And then the chairman starts talking about how many times we’ve taken the action we were discussing in the past. He paused to come up with the number, and since he didn’t seem to have in his his fingertips, I chimed in and told him we’d done it three times. Except my comment was ill-timed, because just before I offer the answer, he said that we’ve done it two times. Our answers came back to back and I was in a situation where after being told not to correct my boss and my boss’s boss, I apparently just corrected the chairman of the board. Oops!

    Fortunately, he laughed and said “I should’ve just asked Liz to begin with.”

    Not only did I get a great story, but I also saw a very compassionate example of leadership, and how someone in a position of power can use that power to make space for others and lift them up. It’s a fantastic lesson then I’m glad to share with others.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      I love this example, Liz. Trying not to correct a boss. I wonder if you were that kid in school who was correcting the teacher’s spelling errors. So hard not to speak up!

  8. Jonquil McDaniel Avatar
    Jonquil McDaniel

    I have several high functioning autistic friends too, and I have found myself most at home online in an Aspie forum. I don’t really think I’m Aspie (though the topic of it being a possibility has came up, I won’t lie), but I really enjoy the clear, concise communication and ability to avoid common assumptive pitfalls (like trying to assign inflection to text, making assumptions about hidden agendas when the motive is clearly stated, etc). And like me, they feel like they do not belong or fit in. They also know what it’s like to be overwhelmed by your senses to the point you can’t function and flip your wig. I don’t understand why no one has thought to mix gifted with autistic. We can help each other a lot.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Thanks for sharing, Jonquil.

  9. gsalisbury189 Avatar

    One of my greatest friends is of great intellect. We don’t necessarily excel at the exact same things, but he’s always quick to point out when I make mistakes or when I’m wrong. And I love it, he can be a bit blunt (being diagnosed on the autism spectrum) but his criticisms are those I value the most. They make me feel human, and that’s very valuable to me.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Sounds like a wonderful relationship.

    2. Ro Avatar

      My husband is on the autistic spectrum too (diagnosed in early childhood). This kind of dynamic you describe is very relatable, and the reason why my husband and I are best friends. The bluntness is deeply valuable to me – and though I sometimes miss other aspects of a relationship, you can’t have it all.

  10. FredB Avatar

    I think I am at a level where I make a better class of mistakes. I’m a four wheel drive kind of guy in a two wheel drive world. Four wheel drive will let you get stuck in places you can’t even get to with two wheel drive.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Hey Fred. I just found this comment. Sorry it took so long for me to respond. I love this analogy!

  11. Antarmukhi Avatar

    Congratulations Paula for the two lovely years of blogging! I have enjoyed it very much, though I chanced upon it about one & half years later.
    This post speaks to me. I am one of those whose academic achievements got linked to smartness. So I had a hard time accepting any lesser than perfect scores. But my stint in the wrong major in my undergraduate studies made me more robust towards failures in achievement. I struggled to just find the right fit for me. So now though I still don’t like failures, I love to learn. Failures are the best teachers.
    I do look at emotional outbursts as failures & I still struggle with that. Any time they seem to ‘get better of me’ I have this sinking feeling. I am struggling to let myself be & I know to make friends with emotional intensity I need to make this journey. It’s so tough.
    Thank you for all your posts, they have given me courage to embrace parts of me that had gone into hiding. As I wrestle with it, the peace & contentment I feel, is all worth it in the end. It’s like coming home, finally.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Welcome home, Antarmukhi. I’m so happy to hear that you’re feeling more peace and contentment and that you’re coming out of hiding.

  12. Ro Avatar

    Congratulations on your two year blog anniversary Paula! We are very lucky to have you sharing so generously here.
    On the topic of failure, I do agree that it is important for parents to show our children that sometimes we fail – and it’s not the end of the world.
    I sit here and play the ukulele when my daughter is around. I’m never going to have any great fluidity; I’ve always struggled with string instruments. Sometimes my daughter sings or hums along (regularly stalling to wait for my fingers to catch up the tune). The cats sit nearby with their closed-eye smiles as I play. So, I’m a constant ‘failure’ at the ukulele but I love it, and others around me even seem to enjoy it too.
    Our output doesn’t have to be ‘perfect’ in order to be worthwhile. I hope that over time, my daughter will truly come to believe this in her own life.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      That’s an excellent model for your daughter, Ro. Loving your ukulele even as you “fail” at it!

  13. Jonquil McDaniel Avatar
    Jonquil McDaniel

    I’ve came a long way in the past few years with accepting the apparent chaos life is determined to be. The more important my plans, the harder she tries to wreck them it seems. I first had to learn where my personal realm of control began and where it ended. Now I’m trying to work on accepting my failures within that realm. My “failures” being the occasional inability to balance a life most folks could not handle at all to begin with. That “results” focus can be deadly for me because I have issues knowing when and where to quit. I have to focus on how much effort has been exterted. I have to forgive myself for the times I make no effort at all because like a deer in headlights I’m frozen by the sheer weight of the load I have to carry.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      You raise an important point, Jonquil, about being aware of what we can control and what we can’t. It sounds like you have a lot of insight! Thanks for sharing.

  14. Lucinda Leo Avatar
    Lucinda Leo

    I’m a fairly new blogEE, Paula, but I’m loving what I’ve read so far. 🙂 Your writing makes me think and makes me chuckle – one of my favourite combinations.

    I think I’ve got my head around failing personally (being made redundant from 3 separate legal jobs finally gave me the message that it wasn’t the career for me, for instance, and thank the Lord for that), but despite me indoctrinating him in growth mindset since he was knee high, my 10 year old is quite a different matter. Let’s hope he gets there too, some time!

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Hi Lucinda. So happy to have you. Thinking and chuckling. Exactly my goal!