At our last Failure Institute Summit, we had the pleasure of hearing from Christy Denault, who was the Vice President of Professional Development at Indiana Department of Environmental Management, a Communications Specialist at Purdue University, the Director of Communications at United Feeds as well as the Communications Director for Mike Pence while he was governor of Indiana. Her entire presentation was delightful, but two stories, in particular, stood out to me.
The first story was of an experience she had in school. One of her teachers encouraged her to apply for the Rhodes Scholarship, which involved an interview with the District Committee. Initially, she was frightened by the prospect, because she wanted to be perfect and completely prepared for the interview. Following the advice of a friend, she spent hours digesting information from multiple news sources, inundating herself with current events. When the big day arrived, everything fell apart. The interview was a complete failure, because Denault wasn’t herself. She was so focused on being prepared and doing well that she neglected the one element that would secure her success: authenticity.
The second story involved another scholarship, when a teacher encouraged her to write an essay for the application. Denault procrastinated, making excuses and generally doubting her own capabilities to write something worthy of the scholarship. She had predetermined, before putting pen to paper, that she couldn’t succeed. Anything she submitted would be less than perfect. When Denault finally did write and submit an essay, she later heard back from the scholarship committee, which had accepted her as a candidate for the scholarship. Denault went on to become a Fulbright scholar, earning a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Iowa and a master’s degree in international conflict analysis from the University of Kent at Canterbury, England.
How did she find such success? She wrote an essay about … butter. Of all things, butter seemed an unlikely topic. Denault informed our audience that she wrote the essay about the value of hard work, with the process of butter-making being a prime example of hard work with good—shall we say, delicious—results. Furthermore, she wrote about what she knew. She didn’t deny her upbringing, her personal experiences, her own life lessons. She embraced who she was, and just wrote from the heart.
The lesson I took away from both scenarios is that we often let the desire for perfection cloud our understanding of reality, and ourselves. We lose sight of our own abilities and responsibilities, our limitations and skills, focusing solely upon the goal. As a result, we neglect details. We grow anxious and stressed, consumed with our need for total success. Such worry only heightens our blindness and decreases our capacity to be flexible, innovative, and productive. In the end, our intense desire for success can generally lead to failure, something we have actually wished to avoid.
Ultimately, the one thing that can help us most—it doesn’t guarantee that we won’t fail, but it is crucial when learning from failure—is to just be ourselves. Don’t set unrealistic expectations but establish S.M.A.R.T. goals for yourself. Most importantly, don’t try to be someone else—don’t crowd your mind with current events just because it helped someone else with an interview, at the expense of being present with people. True success requires you to be yourself. People don’t care so much about what you do, what you know, what you have achieved. They want to know you and what makes you tick. Evaluate your strengths and weaknesses. Improve those weaknesses and use your strengths to bring forth your leadership and contribute genuine value to your workplace. When all else fails, be yourself.