What would you do if you knew you were going to fail?

Did you just do a double-take? Because the typical question is “What would you do if you knew you knew you couldn’t fail?”

This is a tough question to answer because we don’t want to fail. We are taught that failure is bad. If you fail, you’re a loser. When we experience failure, it hurts. At one point or another in our lives we have felt the sting of failure and questioned our abilities. I remember going to audition after audition to pursue my dance major and not seeing my name on that call-back paper, or getting a letter in the mail announcing I was not chosen into the program. 

I was technically failing in my mid-term evaluation during one of my fieldwork Level II placements- something occupational therapy students have to pass in order to graduate from school and become practicing occupational therapists. 

I am no stranger to failure. Failure was something I felt so much shame around. Now, I look forward to failing. In fact, I have totally embraced the term ‘fail forward.’ I am going to break down what fail forward means, why you must seek to fail forward, how to fail fast, and how to fail often.

I promise, this is a good thing. Stay with me and let’s go!

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Fail forward can be described as learning from your mistakes and setbacks and leveraging them for success.  I remember one of my beloved professors from occupational therapy shared with the class: “Oh, you’re going to fail. You’re going to fail a lot.” I would be lying if I said that didn’t scare me. I’m a Virgo, Type A, anxiety-driven perfectionist and I can’t stand to mess up- what do you mean I’m going to fail?

Failure is how we learn the greatest lessons. Through trial and error, I learned what didn’t work and what worked when I began treating my pediatric patients at my first job as an occupational therapist. My professor’s words of wisdom rang in my head every time I messed up. I thought to myself: “It’s OK to mess up. That is a part of the process.”

Even still, I was uncomfortable with failure. I have played it safe throughout many moments of my career for fear of failure. It was when I began to look at my fear, acknowledge it, and live with it that I began to have a different relationship with it.

I came across a video of Will Smith talking about failure to prepare for this blog, and I can honestly tell you I thought of the title of ‘fail forward, fail fast, and fail often’ before I heard him talk about it- really! I also later came across a quote from John C. Maxwell about failure using the same words. Great minds must think alike! Anyway, according to Will Smith, you have to live from a space where you’re almost certain you’re going to fail.

“Failure is where all of the lessons are.”

Will Smith


I began to take on a different relationship with this thing called failure. Little by little, I began experimenting with it in different ways. Experimenting with failure didn’t mean I took reckless risks; rather, I began to go after the things I wanted to try and learned to accept that it might not work out. Once I accepted that, I knew I could look for the lesson. It was a win-win for me because I knew I was going to grow from the experience. 

Was this mindset shift easy? NO! It was scary. I have learned something big that has helped me to go after my dreams and goals that I couldn’t do without the help of this phrase: Do it scared.

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If you choose to play it safe all the time, you are doing others a huge disservice, much less yourself. For example, if you choose the same ol’ treatment interventions with your kids instead of going for the new ideas you learned at a continuing education course because you’re not sure how your patients will respond, they may be missing out on the benefits of the new treatment because you’re too scared they’ll have a tantrum.

You’d rather have an easy session compared to one with unknown variables and risks that could end great or could end poorly.

Fail forward allows you to embrace taking risks and learning as you go. In fact, the mistakes you made can be viewed as lessons rather than failures. If you want to gain the most out of your life, you are going to have to continually tinker with getting into your uncomfort zone.

Begin to flex your fail forward muscle as much as you can so that you can learn quickly and grow faster.


Ask yourself: “Where do I want to be a year from now?” Usually, there will be a gap in your skills, experiences, etc. between you now and future you. 

In our wellness club for healthcare professionals, we have a Practitioner Reflection worksheet to help bridge that gap between where you are right now, what your challenges are, and how to apply your lessons (ahem, your failures) to help you be your future self.

You can join our club here and access that exercise along with other worksheets, resources, guides, content, and a supportive community of other healthcare professionals so you can grow yourself personally and in your career.

Focus on one area of your life for now- it can be your career, your physical fitness, dating- whatever it is that’s scaring you into inaction.  We are afraid of failing because we will let ourselves down if we do. If you have goals to get married by 30, lose 20 pounds, or get promoted to OT supervisor by the end of the year- it’s easy to become paralyzed by your fear because your focus is on that end result. 


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Shift your focus onto the journey and your action steps.

If you focus on the road, the steps you take, and how you feel during the journey, those are things you can control instead that results-based goal that may or may not happen. You can shift your mindset, behaviors, and attitude, which I would argue is more important than that end goal.

Let go of perfectionism.

Perfectionism is the antithesis of failure IMO. The two just don’t mix. So I’m here to tell you to let that go. My perfectionist tendencies are alive and well inside of me, but I have for the most part have let them go.

I have chosen instead to embrace the messiness of my journey and my life. For example, this shift in my way of being has made an unpredictable life on the road (at the moment, my husband is doing travel therapy and we move every three-six months!) much more bearable. 

Befriend your fear of failure.

Ask yourself everyday: “Did I fail today?” This is something I picked up watching an interview of Sara Blakely, founder of Spanx. Her father asked her what she failed at during dinner every week. She claims that her father helped her to redefine what failure meant. To Sara, failure was when she didn’t try. What a perfect example of what failing forward should embody- an intimate relationship with failure. 

Visualize your future self.

Like I mentioned earlier, ask yourself: “Where do I want to be a year from now?” Or change that to two, three, five, or ten years. Envision how you feel as your future self. What are you doing? Where are you going? Where do you live? How are you impacting the lives of others?

Don’t be afraid to think about what that all looks like- sometimes we can feel silly when we think about the ideal life we want because maybe it seems too out of reach or we feel undeserving. This isn’t the time to play it small- envision what your most lit up future self looks like and keep that at the forefront of your mind.

I’m a sucker for vision boards and future journaling, so do what you need to do to feel in-touch with your future self!


Now back to the original question: What would you do if you knew you were going to fail?

This question gets you thinking about the reality of failure and failing forward. Risk is a very real part of our world. Almost everything carries a degree of risk, whether we realize it or not. It may appear negative at first because like I’ve highlighted, we don’t like failure.

This question urges you to think about what is it that you are so passionate about that taking a risk is worth it? Are you willing to fail forward in the name of doing something that matters so much to you? What are you willing to do knowing the possibility of failure and success are both present? What is so inherently rewarding to you that you’d do it anyway?

Pursuing what you love and embracing the fear that comes with it will help you to find what you’re really all about in this life. Whether it’s going up to someone you admire that you see at the airport (hello Jaclyn Johnson) or going for a big career move- do it scared and do it anyway. 

Erika del Pozo, MOT, OTR/L is the CEO and co-founder at Joy Energy Time. You can contact her at erika@joyenergytime.com

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