“Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.” — Winston Churchill
Have you ever experienced an awkward moment when you made a mistake in front of someone? The shame that’s felt when caught making an avoidable mistake, making you feel miserable? Predicting the wrong outcome and suffering the consequences that came from overconfidence and poor planning? Failure is a fact of life. We periodically learn more from the avoidance of repeated failures than we do from chasing continued success.
Below is a recent reflection I wrote about failure. I wrote this as a resource for myself and my hope is that from reading this, some part will resonate with you as well and provide you with a new approach to positively reacting and reflecting on your own failures.
Failure is always a possibility
When I think about the word failure, I get a mixed reaction of disdain and of acceptance. Disdain towards the memories of past failures I have made and acceptance of the fact that failure will always be a constant factor in anything I try to do. Mistakes, pain, rejection — all of these are prerequisites for success.
Failure is as much a prerequisite for success as it is the opposite of success, for we cannot succeed without failing first. One could challenge this claim by stating that they have succeeded in accomplishing tasks and feats at the first attempt. However, that rebuttal tends to beg the question, “Can you understand how you achieved that initial success?” See, even if you succeed at something within the first attempt, that doesn’t necessarily mean you can replicate that same outcome unless you have a fundamental understanding of how it came to be. Failure is what teaches us how to achieve success that can be done more than once. Failure provides us the understanding needed for repeated success when it matters most.
It’s nothing personal
It should be mentioned that I personally have difficulty remembering this paradigm shift whenever I experience a failure in real-time. I, like many others, tend to be awash with that feeling of disdain I mentioned above. “Why is this happening to me?” “What did I do wrong?” “Life isn’t fair.” However, thinking about failure with respect to it being a part of what success is, it has in a way helped in my reflections on past mistakes and mishaps I’ve had in the past. I don’t often times think about this during the incident but, it does allow for me to cope and move on more effectively.
Consider for example the world of sales. Success in selling anything, whether it be a product or service isn’t determined by the number of yes’s you get, rather by the number of no’s! It’s a necessary step in learning from every moment and to see your failures as building blocks, not roadblocks.
“As we try to create favorable outcomes from the decisions we make, we can also try to create desirable failures.”
Don’t make your failures personal. As Les Brown once famously said, “When things go wrong, don’t go with them.” His words align with the notion that the failures in our lives can bring us both valuable lessons and even happiness as a consequence of letting the past be used as a tool for growth and learning. It is when we see the past failures we made as grandiose incidents rather than what they really are, we get in our own way.
Ryan Holiday, author of the book Ego Is The Enemy, provides insight into the dangers of letting failure (and success) get to our heads. Just as it is important to accept the failures in our lives and move on, it is just as important to constantly and objectively evaluate who are. In this evaluation, you have to consider your ability in the moment in which you tackled the situations in when you failed and review why you may have been the only cause of said failure.
For a moment, reflect on this passage from Ego Is The Enemy:
“One might say that the ability to evaluate one’s own ability is the most important skill of all. Without it, improvement is impossible. And certainly ego makes it difficult every step of the way. It is certainly more pleasurable to focus on our talents and strengths, but where does that get us? Arrogance and self-absorption inhibit growth. So does fantasy and ‘vision’ (page 21).”
Your approach to failure has to be grounded in reality. When I think about the commonalities between all of the failures I’ve had in the past (and the ones that will definitely happen in the future) the common thread is that I reacted poorly in the moment because I was too focused on myself. With this new approach to thinking about failures as building blocks moving forward, I’m going to shift the common thread of my failures to be, “a moment in time in which I learned something new and had fun while learning it.”
Gamify your daily challenges
Games and game theory can be used to further think about the topic of failure as a tool, as a positive fact of life. Consider this: one of the best ways to approach the daily challenges we face is by thinking of them as games. If we to take this into consideration as we go throughout life, we could come to not only accept the inevitability of failure but, also begin to appreciate our reactions towards it. In games, if you play enough times you’re bound to lose.
With this in mind, if we can predict our failures in advance, perhaps we can even help skew the results of the decisions we make in our favor. As we try to create favorable outcomes from the decisions we make, we can also try to create desirable failures. We can skew even the most unfortunate of events into integral components for our growth. By considering what are the desirable outcomes of any scenario (both in success and in failure) we can not only plan to succeed but, also prepare to learn from our future mistakes.
Depending on the nature of your work, there are certain mistakes that are permissible (especially if you are just at the start of your job). Think about the acceptable loses your team is willing to endure on your behalf. In addition, consider what are acceptable loses you permit yourself to make. Have you thought of any? Failures are bound to happen and the inability to forgive oneself doesn’t allow for growth and progress.
In games, my general approach is to learn how to have fun first, which in turn relieves some of the pressure and stress that comes from competition and loss. When the focus is shifted from winning to just learning the mechanics of the game itself and making the experience enjoyable — there is no way that failure can distract or deter one from moving forward. And as we fail, we will begin to gain insights that will help us to not repeat the same mistakes in the future.
Accepting failure as a part of growth
Tying back to seeing acceptable failures as a part of your list of desired outcomes, you can also leverage practical pessimism when reflecting on your failures. Practical pessimism is a mode of thinking, in which the focus is to catalyze effective productivity even if failure is imminent. It is a way of stoically approaching the world, although you may fail — the pain of said failure isn’t as bad as you may believe.
Taking into account whatever your failures may be, if you go face your challenges with the primed reaction of, “I accept that this is just a small moment of my life, one that I will learn from,” you can always gain something from any failure that may occur.
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