Most of us have spent the majority of our lives avoiding failure. I know I have. I focused on what it might cost me to fail at whatever I was wanting to do. And let me tell you, I had a vivid imagination when it came to that. Would it cost me money? Would I feel stupid if I couldn’t do it? Would it hurt? Would I lose the respect of other people?
I made, in my mind, such a big deal of failing that for the longest time I didn’t try anything new. I had conditioned in myself the mindset that it was less painful to do nothing than it was to possibly fail. The rewards of success just weren’t worth the possible costs. This is something that I’m still in the process of overcoming, but I have come to realize that failure is one of the most powerful things that I could ever experience. I’m changing my association of failure from that of a negative experience to that of an incredibly positive experience.
How Can Failure Be A Good Thing?
I read a book long ago that asked that very question. The first answer my mind threw out was, “It can’t. There’s no way that failing at something can be good.” The book went on to point out many ways that failing can be a good thing. I put the book down. Quit reading it. For many years afterward, I completely closed my mind to the possibility that failing had even the slightest benefit. Needless to say, for that period of years, I accomplished very little in my life.
After a number of years of life experience, I’ve had the occasion to revisit that question, and the willingness to finally consider that there could be a silver lining to the failure cloud was the beginning of my turn-around. I began to look around me, and one thing stood out: the people that I considered successful weren’t ‘overnight wonders’. They’d been around the block, took their knocks, and came back with a vengeance. In short, they were failures. At least, they were failures according to the definition I had of a failure. When I looked at them, I only saw how and what they were doing now. I didn’t look behind the scenes at what they had endured to make it to where they were.
‘Endured’ Or ‘Experienced’?
One of the first things that I determined is that if I were going to turn my association of failure into a positive event, I needed to change the words that I used to describe it. I was using terms like endure (see the last sentence of the previous paragraph—I wrote that on purpose), go through, and live through. I’ve learned that in many cases, a simple shift in the words you use to describe things can be enough to change what those things mean to you.
So I’ve changed the words I use to describe the art of failure. I see failing now as an opportunity, an experience, even an adventure. I can use failure to learn new skills, gain new insight into the human condition, gain insight into my own condition and behaviors, to understand what works well and what maybe doesn’t work so well.
You may need to learn to associate different words with failure than I do. It depends on what your life’s values are. A couple of my highest values are learning new things, and helping other people. So when I fail at something, I can hit two targets with one arrow! I can learn new ways to help people. Determine what some of your highest core values are, and start talking and thinking about failure as a positive virtue that helps you fulfill those values.
It’s All In Your Mind
True story. Failure has only the meaning that you associate to it. Failure isn’t a tangible condition. You can’t touch it, you can’t taste or see it. It doesn’t even exist as a condition until you give it life in your mind, until you classify your experience as failure.
So when something doesn’t quite happen the way that you’d envisioned it happening, consider yourself successful. You’ve found a way that doesn’t work. You’ve saved yourself time and effort on the next go around, because you won’t have to try that again. Don’t let not achieving your desired outcome derail you. You just learned how not to do it.
Man v. Log
I used to do a lot of back-woods motorcylcle riding. One day on a very long ride, I came upon a large log (almost 3′ high) lying across the trail. The trail was such that it was impossible to go around the log. It was either go over it, or go back. I couldn’t see any way over it. My bike was heavy enough (a WR400 Husqvarna, for those of you who know bikes) that I couldn’t lift it over. I was ready to give up. Then my riding partner (whom I hadn’t ridden with before) approached the tree slowly on his motorcycle, goosed the throttle just right, stood just right, and rode over the tree! I knew people could do that, but I’d never seen it done before.
So now I was in a dilemma. He was over on the other side, telling me how easy it was. Do this, do that, and that’s all there is to it. I believed him, because I’d seen him do it. So I rode up to the tree, goosed it like I’d seen him do, stood on the pegs the way I’d seen him do it, and made it halfway over before I found myself headed to the ground upside down, with the bike on top of me. Still on the same side.
Well. It took 7 times, and a couple of lacerations before I figured it out. But I did it. I learned how. Yeah, those first six times I failed, but every time I failed, I learned how not to do it. But in my mind, the price of failure to finally get over the obstacle was greater than the blows my ego and body were taking each time I didn’t get over it. So I picked my bike up, dusted myself off, and tried again and again until I learned how.
It’s too bad I didn’t remember and relate that lesson to the larger areas of my life in the following years. It would have saved me a lot of anguish.
No matter. The past does not equal the future. All we have, all we can control, is here and now.
Get up, dust yourself off, and go for it again, using what you learned to propel you even farther, because one thing is certain: if you’re not failing, it’s because you’re not trying.