Thoughts on failure

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about making college and career choices. It was a response to an email I received from a previous student resident of mine, asking my opinion about making college decisions, choosing a major, and building up a life plan. In my response, I talked about failure:

“Failures are not failures, they are successes. If you spent five years learning about something and trying it out and realizing that it’s not for you, it is NOT A FAILURE. You’ve learned, analyzed, grown, deliberated, decided – and chances are you have acquired some useful skills along the way. A failure means that you’ve tried. Appreciate the opportunities you have to explore, learn, and practice. Even if you change your mind again in five years, you’ll still have learned about how to communicate, practiced business, budgeting, managed projects, made friends and new contacts, etc. The list never ends.

I want to expand on this idea of “failure.” Wikipedia defines failure as “the state or condition of not meeting a desirable or intended objective, and may be viewed as the opposite of success.”

I find myself wondering, why is failure such a bad thing? Why is there such a stigma regarding failure, and why do we discourage ourselves from starting, trying, or fixing things because we’re afraid that in doing so, we might fail? I tend to disagree with latter half of the Wikipedia definition – a failure may result in not meeting our desired objectives, yes, but it is most certainly not the opposite of success.

Some further thoughts regarding the idea of “failure,” in no particular order:

The only failure – ever – is a failure to try. The most lingering disappointments, I find, are from opportunities that I’ve ignored or challenges that I’ve declined to embrace. The tough stuff is what teaches us about ourselves, expands our life experiences, and allows us to change and grow.

To try – and to “fail” – is to FALL, not to FAIL. To try, no matter how unsuccessfully, is to learn.  You might consider the opposite of failing rather as “falling.” That is, sometimes we fall flat on our face. We go all-in, back to the wall, in-it-to-win-it to succeed. And we fall short. Way short sometimes. This is not a failure. The more gutsy the attempt, the more admirable the fall.

Falling is hard. It’s embarrassing, discouraging, and scary to fall — and it can be downright hard. But being in the trenches, learning, is what leads to future successes. Every step forward gives you the chance to learn and to grow. We get feedback on how we are doing, we learn more about ourselves, and we discover our capabilities. And, if we’re lucky, we know better (albeit somewhat painfully) what steps we need to take to improve our performance for the next time.

Learning takes time. A friend of mine had the best advice – it’s now a favorite quote of mine:  “When you learned to walk and talk, it didn’t all go well at first .. at least for a while. We’re silly human people and we need to practice things before we do them well.”

The concept “failure” happens when our expectations are not in line with our effort. We feel “failure” most poignantly when our expectations are not in line with our effort. At times, you may find yourself faced with the harsh reality that what you’ve expected or anticipated hasn’t turned out how you thought it would.  The bigger the discrepancy, the more uncomfortable and disappointing the failure can be.  By not recognizing the steep learning curves around us, we can become discouraged by our lack of expected success.  “Success” takes more than belief, courage, and hope: it also takes hard work, effort, and often incredible amounts of perseverance and energy.

Focus on the positive, even during downturns. Be thankful for chances, opportunities, and challenges. Even if you hate your job, are stuck in a terrible relationship, are a million miles away from your home, or undergoing an arduous challenge, there are still positives. You have your job. You are exploring and you are learning. You are meeting new people. You are stretching the bounds of what you know, how you perform, and what you can be. And thus, my last random quote on failure:

“There’s nothing more to live your life by, that wake up each day and say yes, this I will try.”

And thus, I am thankful for failure, thankful for falling, thankful for opportunities. I’ve learned to walk, talk, and read. For now, I can only ask: What’s next?

10 Responses to Thoughts on failure

  1. I train new employees and new managers alike, and the first thing I teach them about making mistakes is that it’s only a failure if you don’t learn from it. In many cases, it’s better to “fail” quickly and re-direct your effort than it is to take 6 months to make a decision. I’ve never once been upset with any employee who made a mistake, owned up to it, and planned corrective or preventative measures. In fact, those employees show me courage, responsibility, and tenacity.

    I really liked this post, Sarah. Thanks for sharing!

    • Sarah says:

      Charlie, thanks for your kind words! It’s so humbling to learn from failure, but I like to think that failure – and falling down – means that you’re willing to try. I would much rather work with people courageous enough to try new things, even if it means falling down or making mistakes along the way – rather than people too afraid to try.

      I’d love to hear more about your training for new employees and managers – sounds like a very interesting subject!

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