Keep Trying, Keep Failing


I recently read Brené Brown’s Dare to Lead, and when I got to the part on “empathy fails,” I almost gave up. I’ve done them all. Made every mistake. Failed in every way there is to fail. And I’m supposed to be a communication expert! I was so discouraged that for a split second I was ready to give up not only on the book, but on my career and all relationships, too.

Not that I’m melodramatic or anything.

But here’s the wonderful and terrible thing about communication: It’s a skill. And all skills require practice. That’s wonderful, because that means anyone can improve if you’re willing to work. Terrible because … it requires work.

In the Information Age, we don’t like the idea of practice. We expect to see and then know. Once something is in your head, it should show up in your life, right? You read the blog. You watched the video. You even attended a training! You ask, “Why can’t I DO this yet? “

But you don’t actually become skilled at something until you do it, use it, try it and fail at it over and over and over again. Almost everything you do in life is learned behavior. Right now, aren’t you reading this blog? There was a time you couldn’t read. Did you take a step today? There was a time you couldn’t walk. Did you use a toilet today? Congratulations! There was a time you weren’t potty trained. And all of those “skills” that you take for granted today took time, effort, attention, and practice before you could do them consistently. (Thank goodness you were willing to work at the potty training!)

As Daniel Coyle points out in his book The Talent Code, “A skill, once gained, feels utterly natural, as if it’s something we’ve always possessed.” That’s because the more you practice the skill, the more insulation (myelin, in neuroscience terms) your brain gives that circuit. But in the beginning, the new skill feels anything but natural! Says Coyle, “Struggle is not optional—it’s neurologically required: in order to get your circuit to fire optimally, you must by definition fire the circuit sub-optimally; you must make mistakes and pay attention to these mistakes; you must slowly teach yourself your circuit. You must also keep firing the circuit—i.e., practicing—in order to keep myelin functioning properly.”

This is what makes “the greats” in any field great. They constantly hone their craft. They push their limits, notice their mistakes, fix them… and try again. They read. They watch videos. They attend trainings. And then they put that knowledge to WORK, imperfectly at first. They struggle.

If you want to be a great leader (or a great manager, a great salesperson, a great lawyer, a great teacher…), you need to learn and practice excellent communication skills until they become habit. Breathing, pausing, gesturing, claiming space… to get these skills in your life, you need to try them, fail at them, and try them again.

Understanding a concept won’t change your life. Applying it to your life will. But that’s a vulnerable position to put yourself in, because you will screw up sometimes. Great leaders always do their best, and they understand that sometimes their best is still pretty crappy. But if you keep working, keep trying, keep applying, keep fixing, keeping honing, eventually your best can become THE Best. 


Change your communication, change your life.

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