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From the Inside

On not being afraid of failure

Estimated read time: 12 minutes

It’s time to welcome our latest From the Inside columnist – please give a big round of applause to York St John’s Katy Duddell, who will writing a series of posts for us over the next couple of months. To kick things off, she’s looking at something we’re probably all a bit scared of…failure.

*If you’d like to be a future From the Inside columnist then please get in touch!*

Failure. It’s a scary thing. And, more often than not, it’s what holds us back from creating our best work, from innovating and standing out from the crowd.

Fear of failure has been a constant throughout my working life and it can take many forms – fear of mistakes, of trying something new, of losing to someone else, of not being good enough for your job. So I think it’s time we talk more openly about failure, how it affects us all and how we can start to think about it in a new, less fearful way.

What if we make a mistake?

In social media, working with a large, always-online audience means that mistakes can easily take on a life of their own. A simple typo or scheduling error will usually pass without much comment, but there is always a chance that it could be spotted, shared, and snowball into a viral disaster.

On top of that, we face the exhausting reality that the majority of the content we create is only temporary. No matter how proud you are of a cool campaign video or your live coverage of a campus event, within 24 hours it will drop out of your followers’ feeds and (most likely) their memories.

Because of this, it’s easy to feel like failure is always imminent – what if you make a foolish mistake and you lose a bunch of followers? What if you try something new and it tanks? You can end up stuck in a safe but boring status quo, churning out content that does the job but isn’t going to blow anyone’s minds. But can we learn to flip this feeling and see the positives?

Ours is perhaps one of the most forgiving spaces to work – a mistake that is a viral sensation one day will be completely forgotten in a few days, as will any flop ideas you might be worried about. That exhausting churn of never-ending content can also be our best friend, allowing us to reinvent our strategy and our social personality, so let’s not be afraid of it.

Losing the fear of posting something crap is essential to learning how to create something great. Let’s accept that the lows almost always come with the highs – you can either have both, or neither. I know which one I want to pick!

What if we’re not the best?

Your institution is not perfect. Nor is mine. Let’s get that out of the way first, shall we?

It feels like we are surrounded by about a hundred thousand different league tables and assessments at the moment, each one putting a different statistic at the forefront in an effort to finally say, once and for all, who’s the best of the best.

When you are representing an organisation through their digital presence – acting as the front line for feedback and complaints – that pressure to constantly be showing off how much better you are than everyone else sometimes takes over. You get scared of trying to ‘take on’ the big names, of slipping up when your competitors are watching. You get competitive. You become determined to have better stats than your competitors, to have more followers, to be first on new channels and to win awards for your sector-leading, innovative campaigns.

Now if you have managed to achieve those things, that’s great, it takes a lot of hard work. But, being honest with ourselves, how much do those things matter to our audience? How much do they care about which university’s marketing is the most aesthetically pleasing, or who runs the best Facebook Lives?

At the end of the day, we must keep in mind that we are not selling a cheap disposable product; we are influencing the lives and futures of young people, and we owe it to them to help them find the option which suits them best. Give them some credit – the vast majority of students aren’t going to take league table position or (god forbid) social media followers as the sole deciding factor in their decision, they are going to judge us on which university feels like home to them, which staff and fellow students they connect with.

And so, fear of losing to another institution isn’t going to help anyone – in fact it’s likely to harm both you and your audience. Our focus should be on supporting and informing our students at what is undeniably a scary time in their lives. We need to work towards openness, sharing our expertise, and having each other’s backs. When you feel that fear of losing league table places or awards creeping up on you, take a moment to remember what is really important to our students.

What if *I’m* not good enough?

Now, I can’t talk about fear and failure from a purely objective, content-related angle. I’m sure all of you reading this will have experienced insecurity and a lack of confidence in your work at some point, whether that’s a while in the past or at your desk this morning. Me too. Being afraid of failure has at times left me paralysed in my job and terrified of trying anything but the very safest option.

In a relatively new field like social media, many of us have worked for years in junior roles, knowing that our work deserved a seat at the strategic table but unable to push for one. We have probably been put down by managers who didn’t see the point in social media, been deprioritised and dismissed.

In an environment like that, it’s difficult not to become convinced that your work will fail, and that if your work fails, it’s your own personal fault. How do you separate the value of your work from your value as a person?

Listen to your gut. If you’re reading this you probably already know that there are a multitude of great reasons for every organisation to be investing in their social media and the people who run it. If your workplace isn’t doing that, maybe it’s time for a rethink about where you are.

You also don’t have to figure this out alone. The community of social media professionals (especially in education) is a strong and supportive one and for me, has been a fantastic place to talk through problems and float new ideas.

If you’re slowly going mad feeling like you’re the only person in your workplace who *gets* social, and that maybe you’re just not that good at it, getting involved with a group of people in the same area of work will help boost your confidence and reassure you that you actually have a lot more skills than you think.

All of this insecurity and fear can happen to anyone, but it would be silly not to mention how much more it can affect my female friends and counterparts, so many of whom have put up with sexist behaviour at work on top of everything else (ever noticed how many marketing departments are female-dominated but how such a high proportion of keynote speakers and industry experts are still men?). To my sisters: don’t let this chip away at your confidence any more. Next time you’re feeling insecure about your work, think about whether a man in the same situation would be feeling the same. Chances are he wouldn’t. Reach for those opportunities, refuse to be interrupted, and realise that you are stronger than you know.

* * *

All this talk about fear might be a bit dramatic, but sometimes the pressure of our jobs can frighten us into submission. Now, we need to face those fears. There are practical things we can do – double-check for typos, run new ideas past trusted colleagues – but perhaps more important is a need for us to support one another.

Competition in our sector is fierce and we are under more pressure than ever to succeed, to win, to beat each other into second place; but wouldn’t it be better for all of us if we worked together? Not only to provide the best options for our students but to stand up for our work, to protect our wellbeing and to show what we can achieve when we are given space to succeed. The world of work is a scary place, but if we have each other’s backs – well then, what is there to be afraid of?

*If you’d like to be a future From the Inside columnist then please get in touch!*