Chisinau, Republic of Moldova – April 30, 2018: A group of students stand in ridiculous poses in front of the teacher. Horizontally framed shot.
If there’s one mental hurdle you’re bound to face as an entrepreneur, it’s failure. But failure doesn’t have to be perceived as a bad thing. In fact, perception can create success even from a failure.
We know we can handle things we’ve experienced or accomplished before, but when we’re faced with new challenges, we haven’t proven to ourselves that we’re capable. And while we might know we’re capable of figuring it out, our perception of the new responsibility often makes it out to be larger than it really is. It can lead to feeling as though you don’t really deserve the role, or you’re just pretending to be successful.
Here’s a secret you need to understand to become successful: Everyone is just pretending to be capable until they truly become capable. That’s right—you can “fake it” till you make it. The trick is that everything you’re doing that feels fake isn’t really fake—it’s just you learning and expanding, thinking on your feet, and assuming the necessary roles of a businessperson.
I had a shift in my own mindset when I decided to take an improv class after college. I was in a phase of trying many things out in an effort to shape my identity and figure out where I wanted to go in life. To be honest, the improv class sounded like fun, as I was always a fan of improv TV shows and David Letterman, so I signed up, having little clue what an impact it would have on me.
Obviously, I didn’t become a stand-up comedian, but that improv class taught me several important skills and lessons about life. It helped me learn to think on my feet, something that’s vital to an entrepreneur. It forced me to become more comfortable in front of an audience, which in turn has made me more confident in general. And I quickly became more comfortable with failure.
Part of the mindset shift that happened was learning to step into a role and fulfill it, just like entrepreneurs must do in real life. After all, especially when your business is new, the entrepreneur often plays many or even all of the roles needed to run the business. Knowing how to act, especially improvisation, makes stepping into those roles easier, because it’s just like stepping into character.
In Todd Herman’s book The Alter Ego Effect: The Power of Secret Identities to Transform Your Life, he discusses how he’s coached sports stars and Olympic athletes to overcome their mental hurdles by creating an alter ego—a character, if you will—whose shoes they can step into whenever they need to perform. This mental tool has proven extremely effective for many disciplines beyond sports as well, including in the business world.
Herman uses the analogy of a superhero, such as Superman, to illustrate how the alter ego can help us achieve more than we thought possible. It turns out that creating and assuming alter egos is a practice that many high-performing people use across a wide variety of industries—from athletes to politicians to TV stars. Just like Superman created the alter-ego of Clark Kent to perform the role of an ordinary individual, an athlete or a musician can mentally assume a created identity to help them perform their best in moments of pressure.
On your road to achieving your goals, you will inevitably face challenges, and Herman suggests meeting those challenges by asking yourself this: “Who or what needs to show up to make success inevitable?”
The concept works very much like acting. By creating an alter ego that inspires you—someone who is capable of whatever you wish to achieve and behaves in the way you wish to behave—you can step into that role, especially in moments of pressure, leaving your insecurities behind and acting in the way that envisioned person would act. Many people who do this even have a prop they use when assuming their alternative identity to help them get into character—such as a pair of glasses or a clipboard.
What’s important about the alter-ego character is that it separates your own identity from that of the created identity. Even if you don’t feel confident in yourself, you can feel confident in the assumed identity. It can help you believe in yourself and develop an attitude of positivity and optimism, which will make you more resilient and less afraid to take risks.
An alter-ego character can also help you weather failure better. This can be especially important for people who tend to tie their identity to what they do. If you identify strongly with your job—you think of it as part of who you are—then any failures in your career you will interpret as personal failures, which can lead to feelings of defeat. You may begin to see those failures as simple failures of a human. Let’s face it, failing is part of being a human being; we’re all subject to it. By creating a character identity that you separate from your true identity, those failures don’t reflect on you as a person. Instead, you can create an alter-ego character who is confident and doesn’t let those failures get you down.
In some ways, the answer to learning from failures is simple: Lean into it. Take an improv class, or simply decide how you can practice being successful in these new roles. Develop your alter-ego character—the superhero version of you, who is capable of handling whatever is thrown their way. Take inspiration from people you admire, your own best traits, and the person you’d like to be in the future. Use your imagination. Then, when it’s time to perform, assume that character in your mind, and let the curtains rise.