Ashley Good got the memo early in life: She was a smart kid. But with that badge came the constant need to prove it — to herself more than anyone. She remembers a childhood spent poring over a workbook while her siblings played on their Game Boys and refusing to quit puzzles before she solved them. That drive led Good to score work right out of school, putting her environmental-science degree to use in Cairo at the United Nations Centre for the Environment, then flying off to Ghana with Engineers without Borders. But all that success also left her ill-equipped to handle her first real brush with failure.
In Ghana, Good wanted to help boost the profits of women harvesting shea nuts in the region. She spent six months consulting with everyone from producers to exporters on a gourmet shea cooking oil, but when the then-26-year-old pitched the idea to her supervisors, they simply shrugged it off. “In my naïveté, I assumed I had come up with something new,” she says. “But they’d already ruled it out.” With her project shelved, Good returned to Canada, only to be confronted with more failure in her personal life. “I had just been dumped by the guy I thought I was going to marry. I also didn’t have a job.” She ended up in her parents’ basement in Toronto, wondering how it all went south. “Life had been pretty easy up until that point,” she says. “This was the first time things didn’t go my way.”
Good decided the best way forward was to do something she — like you, probably — was wired to resist: get really cozy with the concept of failure. “Many of us grow up believing that failure is an indicator of weakness,” she says. “That simply is not true. As we take on harder challenges, failure becomes inevitable.” It’s the way you get around those failures, she says, that helps you improve as a person and an employee, building confidence, resilience and an arsenal of hard-won lessons.
Months after her return to Canada, Good was back with Engineers without Borders, working on a “failure report” designed to identify the organization’s missteps and turn them into learning opportunities. Two years after that, in 2012, she launched her own consulting firm, Fail Forward, to help companies adopt strategies for what she calls “intelligent failure.” Since then, Good, now 31, has worked with Natural Resources Canada, Deloitte and the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, helping staffers get beyond the stigma of failure, embrace their mistakes and learn how to fail better. “It’s not failure we fear so much as being seen as a failure,” she says. But accepting it as a natural part of success gives you permission to try something new.
Good jokes that she “needs this” work as much as anyone, because even with the expert status she’s achieved, she still struggles with a sense of inadequacy. It’s a symptom of an incredibly common psychological phenomenon called imposter syndrome — the feeling that, any day now, you’ll be exposed as a fraud. Good attributes it to her fear that she’s “not living up to my own standards of what I expect.”
That’s common too. “People who feel like imposters experience shame when they fail,” says Valerie Young, author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women. “They feel shame because they have an irrational, unsustainably high definition of what it means to be competent.” While the syndrome’s nagging effects are felt by both genders, women seem to bear the brunt of it, partly because of their tendency to be hard on themselves. Young quotes a statistic from a Hewlett-Packard internal report: Men apply for a job when they’re only 60 percent qualified, while women won’t apply unless they have 100 percent of the credentials. And she points to studies that show that women are more likely to blame themselves when something goes wrong, while men blame someone else.
Imposter syndrome can be difficult, but it doesn’t need to be paralyzing. Harnessing it starts by “reframing” your thoughts about failure: Instead of wallowing, get motivated. For example, rather than beating herself up for not knowing answers to questions she’s asked about failure, Good treats it as an indication of where her research should go next, then returns to those questions frequently. That way, she says, “at least I can see myself getting better.” It takes practice, she adds, but every time something doesn’t seem to go well, “flip the idea of failure on its head.”
In the meantime, rest assured that you’re in excellent company. Good often reminds herself of something Albert Einstein said just before his death in 1955. “The exaggerated esteem in which my life work is held makes me very ill at ease,” he said. “I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler.”
Albert Einstein wasn’t a fraud or a failure. And neither are you.
The Profit/Chatelaine W100 is an annual ranking of the country’s top 100 female entrepreneurs. To learn more, visit chatelaine.com/ideaexchange.