By: Zaineb Mohammed
There are so many ways to fail. We can fail others, fail ourselves, fail at things, fail to do things, and much more.
Even though failure is a part of everyone’s life, it often feels like a word we shouldn’t say out loud. As a communicator by trade, I considered whether I should use another word or phrase for failure in this post, reframing it as “experimentation,” “lessons learned,” or “areas for growth.”
Resistance to failure is part of the trap of capitalism. Within a capitalist economy we are pushed to succeed and produce as much as possible, and failure is not part of that equation. When we fail in our current economic system, it is seen as a reflection of our value as human beings, rather than a natural part of the process of creating something sustainable and long-lasting. The stigma and shame surrounding failure can make us feel like when we fail, we are worth less — that we are replaceable.
Failure can create opportunities for learning and growth, but too often the fear to acknowledge failure out in the open results in doing our learning in private, or not engaging in the learning at all.
Of course, the ability to fail and share failure publicly carries greater risks and vulnerabilities for some more than others. When people of color, particularly Black and Indigenous folks, fail, we are far less likely to be given more opportunities and far more likely to be criticized and scrutinized going forward. Within the world of social movements, the failures of small, emerging grassroots groups led by Black and brown people carry consequences that are often permanent.
On the flip side, philanthropy fails all the time. Funders fail to follow through on commitments, fail to get resources to their grantees on time, start initiatives that fail to produce the intended results, pour millions and billions of dollars into projects that fail to launch, and then repeat the cycle again. One of the reasons these failures repeat themselves is they are almost always shrouded in secrecy — in reports that are never released, in internal meetings, or in processes that are kept under lock and key.
So at the end of 2021, I wanted the Kataly team to share our own failures publicly, in an effort to be radically transparent and live into our values, which include accountability and experimentation. I hoped sharing how we are learning from our failures would be useful to others who are also practicing wealth redistribution through the lens of racial justice. Ultimately, my experiment with telling stories of our failures was something of a failure itself.
I gave my team a prompt and a deadline, with the intention that I would edit responses and publish them in a series within the first couple of months of 2022. Along came the new year and a host of new challenges, and I failed to follow through. The longer I went without working on the series, the more daunting the task seemed. Instead of acknowledging my failure to meet the deadline I had set for myself, apologizing to my team, and creating a new plan to share their reflections, the shame spiral won out. I didn’t want to face my failure, and so I kept pushing it out of my mind.
One of the many problems with hiding our failures is how it can erode trust. When I don’t follow through on commitments, it undermines the relationships I have been building with others. These same challenges exist writ large in philanthropy. When funders ask grantees for their time, their energy, their knowledge, and more and then don’t follow through, suspicion and distrust set in.
If funders want grassroots groups to trust us, then we have to be honest even when we fail. We have to acknowledge when we are late on distributing resources, or when we can’t make good on a commitment we’ve made. When we ask our grantees to share information with us, we owe it to them to tell them how we’ve used — or in many cases not used — what they’ve gifted us with.
Part of acknowledging failure with integrity means holding ourselves accountable to moving differently in the future. If we are stuck in a shame spiral where we cannot face our failure, accountability is not possible. By being honest about how we have or haven’t shown up for those around us, we can take action and make changes rather than repeatedly apologizing for the same failures over and over again.
I have been able to be vulnerable and honest about my failures at work because of my faith in my team to hold me with grace. Too often, we are afraid that being honest about failure will result in us being discarded by others. In order for us to be unafraid of naming our failures, we need our communities to bring us closer when we fail, instead of pushing us farther away.
For myself, my commitment this year is not to avoid failure, but to defeat the shame spiral and embrace honesty, with myself and with others. I want to do my work with integrity and hold myself accountable, while also giving myself grace. Doing these things simultaneously is very challenging, but I believe it is what will let me learn and move on from my failures instead of letting them define my worth.
In traditional communications wisdom, it seems too late to offer reflections on 2021, but time has slowed down and sped up in ways that make these benchmarks feel arbitrary. So even though it’s long past when I thought I would be kicking off this series, I am going to follow through. Stay tuned for more reflections from the team at Kataly on failure, what we are unlearning, and how we are evolving and changing.