Erin Diehl is on a mission to share a simple message: Failure is OK.
Letting go of your perfectionist tendencies and feeling free to make mistakes can help you innovate and ultimately achieve more success and happiness. If even a few people in an audience of hundreds walk away from one of Diehl’s keynote speeches armed with this new perspective on failure and a toolkit to apply tangible learnings to their lives, then she’s done her job. “My purpose in this mission is to make people feel less alone in their own journey with failure,” she says.
Diehl’s journey to becoming a self-described “fail-fluencer” follows stints working in marketing and recruiting, along with several years performing in Chicago’s improvisational comedy scene. Humor can be a powerful way to forge connections. It’s core to the team-building and professional development programs of Improve It!, the company she founded and heads as CEO. And you’ll hear Diehl laugh easily and regularly during the hundreds of episodes of the Improve It! podcast that she hosts.
What we can learn from embracing failure
Whatever the forum, Diehl—whose roster of clients includes Walgreens, Amazon Web Services, U.S. Cellular, LinkedIn, the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and the Obama Foundation—tries to give people “the gentlest nudge” to get out of their comfort zone. Improv’s experiential approach is useful because one of its core principles is an apt metaphor for life—the idea that there are no mistakes, only gifts. “If we constantly look at things that may be deemed failures in our life as failures, we haven’t learned the lesson,” she explains.
To teach these lessons, Diehl draws on personal experience. “I’ve had so many instances in my life where I’ve had to be resilient and bounce back from failure and do it quickly,” she says. “Through those lessons, I have learned tips and tricks that, if I kept [them] to myself, I would feel wrong doing.”
Erin Diehl’s lessons from COVID-era failures
Audiences may not receive these tips and tricks quite so well today were it not for the COVID-19 pandemic. At the onset of the crisis, Diehl remembers hearing many people—particularly women—lament they were failing in their personal or professional lives. Her approach to talking about failure now was influenced by that period because she wanted to create the type of message she needed to hear back then. She reckoned it would resonate with other “recovering” people-pleasers and perfectionists who might benefit from reimagining how they perceive setbacks.
“What I really think failure teaches us is to stop looking outwardly for validation,” she says. Rather, an inward evaluation of why you seek validation and what motivates you will “teach you more than getting a trophy, a certificate or an accolade.”
How to move on from failure
But even the teacher needs to be reminded of her lessons. Diehl is still healing from a recent accident that she’s termed a failure. In May, while vacationing in Costa Rica with friends, she jumped off a 40-foot cliff into a waterfall and hit her head on the water. It was only after Diehl began experiencing a range of health problems that she learned she had suffered a concussion. Doctors diagnosed her with post-concussion syndrome.
“I beat myself up about that jump for a really long time—a really, really long time,” Diehl says. Finally, she recognized it was time to take her own advice, and she began to work through six steps she teaches about how to move on from failure. Here’s how the “move on method” works:
Erin Diehl’s ‘Move On Method’
- M—Marinate. “When you have a failure, you have to give yourself time to process and heal from that failure,” Diehl says. Marinating doesn’t happen overnight; it can take weeks or months or even years. But it’s important to “sit in the suck” and feel the emotions brought on by failure. Ignoring these feelings can lead to other problems, like stress-induced physical pain.
- O—Own it. After sufficient marination, you need to take ownership for your part in the failure. “And the most important piece in owning it is forgiving yourself for what you might have done in that failure.”
- V—Verify lessons learned. This is your opportunity to assess at least two to three things you’ve learned from this particular failure that will serve as a takeaway.
- E—Evaluate next steps. By this point, Diehl says many people have already healed in some way, shape or form, but an action plan is helpful so you can course-correct. “Because there was a reason this failure happened, you have to take that lesson and apply it.”
- O—Ohm. This stage entails sitting in a meditative state and processing what you’ve learned and how you’re going to apply those lessons in the future, Diehl says. That’s important to do so you’re queued up for your…
- N—Next failure. More failure awaits you, she says, but going through this method will make you better prepared when that happens.
Going through these steps, Diehl realized that the waterfall accident was no accident; it was meant to teach her some important lessons. Not only was her fast-paced approach to life unsustainable, but as a mom, business owner and speaker, her obligations to others outweigh her tendency to appease.
How redefining and embracing failure can redefine success
As a result, Diehl has made some radical life changes, particularly in her approach to how she prioritizes work and the people in her life. She’s takes more breaks during the day, practices a self-care routine and sets strict boundaries on her hours. Later this year, her team will experiment with a four-day workweek.
“A successful day to me looks completely different now,” she says. “I have found a sense of inner peace that I would have never known without that ‘failure.’”
More broadly, Diehl is optimistic that the narrative around failure in the workplace could also start to look completely different. “Great leaders see the value in embracing failure” she says. Benefits include improved retention and morale if people aren’t so scared to make mistakes.
“Failure means that they’re trying and failure means that they’re innovating,” she says. “If we allow this culture of acceptance, we allow people to feel like they’re seen and they’re heard and they’re valued.”
But some type of failure is inevitable—be it societally recognized ones like losing your job or personal ones like accidents. That’s why Diehl wants to share her fail-fluencing mentality as a way to achieve success. By letting go of control, you can move out of a state of stagnancy and be freed up to embrace an abundance of ideas—and each other. “We need more love and less criticism and cynicism.”
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