A midcareer client in transition (let’s call him Tim) recounted how he’d been unsuccessful in a recent job interview and had missed out on a role he desired because he’d failed to deliver the perfect response to the question, “Tell me about a time when you didn’t get along with a co-worker?” He explained how the hiring team had sent their “regrets.” Interesting word choice, I thought. I got curious and asked what he understood by this. It turns out “regrets” is how he’d been taught, as a hiring manager himself, to articulate rejection. So, now, when he reflects on not getting a role, he likes to think he’s been sent regrets which takes the sting out of being rejected. We dug a little deeper and explored what it feels like to be rejected; by a prospective employer, a friend, a lover.
“It feels like failure; as though I’m not good enough.”
This resonated. How many times in my own work and life, have I felt myself not to be good enough; lacking? I could hear the gremlin. His, my own. What C. G. Jung calls the “complex” had been activated.
“I’m afraid that I can’t be successful in these interviews if I don’t show up wearing the right mask.” Tim went on.
Now, we were onto something. How many of us feel like we have to put on a mask to navigate work and life?
“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players, I responded.”
“Yeah. It just feels performative,” Tim lamented.
Two central themes came up from this point: first, the concept of mastery versus performance; second, the idea of failure as a pathway to soul.
Performance versus mastery
As a Core Energy Coach, this is a fundamental dichotomy and central to the idea of how we experience the world. A performance orientation or mindset is characterized by showing up wedded to an outcome. We do our utmost to perform to our best, but we’re affected by whether we win or lose, whether we’re successful or unsuccessful. Performing can lead to so-called “rewards,” such as getting hired, or winning a round of golf, but we get so caught up in the result, stuck in our heads, unable to show up completely in the moment. Performance is synonymous with ego-consciousness. And, when the outcome doesn’t go the way ego intended, cue the judgment and the resultant catabolic energy.
A mastery mindset, on the other hand, is when we show up unattached to outcomes and devoted to the task at hand, knowing that whatever the result, by being in the arena, we’re open to growth through doing. Learning is available and the desire is to develop and grow in the direction of mastery. With a mastery orientation, winning or losing is irrelevant. Playing the game is what it’s all about. Showing up with a mastery mindset puts us into the immediacy of the moment. This is often what athletes describe as “flow state.” Energetically, mastery resonates at a much higher, anabolic level than performance. Hence, a performance mindset is never as powerful as a mastery mindset.
Failure as pathway to soul
“To err is human,” says Alexander Pope. Failure is thus a vital human experience. However, in a society that privileges success over failure—winning over losing, growth over regression, light over dark—we miss the soul at work in failure. And, unless failure is what precedes success—how many times have we heard the hackneyed stories of billionaires who’ve made and lost fortunes to only make even greater fortunes?—we won’t acknowledge its visitation and profound effects on our work and life.
“Failure is a mystery, not a problem,” observes the depth psychologist, Thomas Moore (Moore, 1992, p. 196). But what are we to do with mystery? Perhaps by placing failure in the realm of mystery it ceases to be a personal problem our rationalistic egos need to solve and, instead, we can encounter something that’s archetypal, an experience that belongs to the collective, transpersonal Psyche.
Failure also can serve as a counterbalance to inflation, where ego is pushing an agenda that’s incongruent with the demands of the soul. When failure visits and pulls us down from the world of spirit—the high realm of ambition—to the low ground of soul (the underworld), a corrective attitude becomes available. An attitude that can save us from disaster, both figurative and literal. Think about how necessary a corrective attitude would have been for those who built and brought to market a subermissble intended to visit the underwater gravesite of the Titanic—ironically naming it “Titan”—only to have it implode and kill everyone onboard? Thus, failure has something potent to offer us. We must heed its message before it’s too late.
There is inherent value in experiencing failiure as it can bring us into deeper relationship with our Opus. For we must not be afraid to fail, or we’ll never succeed. Think of Tim and his job interview. If he’s able to sit with his feelings of failure—rather than wallow in his “I’m not good enough fantasy”—then imagine the new creative life which might emerge as a result.
How will you meet failure when it next comes a knocking?