“Embarrassing situations are especially common when trying something new, a requirement inside any company interested in innovating.”— Misti Burmeister

Whenever we try something new, we risk embarrassing ourselves. But accomplishing great things requires taking risks, and cultures that embrace failure are the ones where innovation and growth happens.

Look how many Google products have come and gone.

I learned this lesson a few weeks ago, at my first open water swimming event.

While most rookies – particularly those who only learned how to swim 15 weeks ago – opt for the one-mile open water swim, I wanted to challenge myself even more. Since this course was a loop, I figured I could simply get out of the water at the one or two mile mark, if I simply couldn’t finish.

I arrived super early that morning, full of nervous energy. After signing in, I proceeded to walk around in circles, talk to people, peek at the water, and do anything I could to ignore the fear I felt in the pit of my stomach.

About 40 minutes prior to start time, I pulled out the wetsuit I had borrowed and started putting it on. This particular wetsuit was well used, with duct tape holding it together just above the right knee, which I thought looked cool – until I couldn’t get that part up my leg without tearing the tape.

Several minutes later, I finally had the wetsuit on and was in the starting area with my swim angel, Kevin, and about 50 others, when I asked him, “What do I do if I have to pee?”

A swim angel, by the way, swims with you, ensuring you are OK and keeping you on track.

“You can wait until you get in the water, or you can just go in your wetsuit now,” he said.

“I can pee in the wetsuit here, and no one will know?”

“Right. It will come out once you get in the water.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yep, you’ll be fine,” he said calmly.

“OK, I’m going to pee now,” I said.

Suddenly, the guy directly behind me leapt backward as if to get away from me quickly.

Curious about his commotion, I looked back, only to be mortified by the realization that he was jumping away from the pee shooting straight out of the back of my wetsuit.

Oh, God … I’m so sorry,” I said, turning to protect him from the leak I’d sprung. That’s when I realized it was shooting out the little holes in my leg, too. Yikes!

Embarrassed, I looked to Kevin for what to do. Just then, Caroline, a woman I had learned to swim with, came walking up.

“Oh, gosh, Caroline, be careful,” I said, “I just peed in my suit.”

With a straight face and caring voice (abnormal for Caroline-the-trash-talker), she said, “That’s normal.”

“Oh God,” I thought. “She thinks I peed myself because I’m nervous. That’s even more embarrassing … I think.”

“No, no,” I said. But the announcer drowned out my story about how Kevin told me to do it, and instructed us to begin the swim.

What Caroline knew, that I didn’t, was that peeing in your wetsuit – at least in the open water swim world – is quite normal. It takes forever to get the thing on, and you can’t exactly run in and out of the bathroom quickly.

And equipment malfunctions are also part of the deal – thankfully!

It seemed a little gross – and a lot embarrassing. But no one commented or snickered, and a few minutes later all concerns about my leaky wetsuit were gone as I made my way into the water.

Kevin and Caroline understood the culture of these kinds of events and made it a point to help me feel comfortable with an otherwise embarrassing situation.

Naturally, embarrassing situations are especially common when trying something new, a requirement inside any company interested in innovating. When you don’t know what you’re doing, or are unsure about the outcome you’ll create, failure – and thus embarrassment – are part of the deal.

Cultures – corporate or otherwise – that encourage failure, wind up with people who are willing to endure embarrassment to achieve something greater. Does yours? How do you know?

JOIN THE CONVERSATION: How does your team/company encourage innovation? Have you ever tried something new that didn’t work out? How did you handle it?

Thanks to Dexter Britain and Gillycuddy for their music contribution and LN Lurie for producing this podcast.

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