Have you ever heard someone say, “failure is not an option”?
I’m not sure who I first heard reply this way, but I remember nodding the first time I heard someone reply…
“If failure isn’t an option, then neither is success.”
You may have been in a situation before where success seemed urgent, maybe even essential to survival. We’ve all known moments where we knew we needed to find a way to succeed – we knew failure had massive negative consequences.
Many Successful People Faced Great Failure
But, here’s the thing – failure is actually a key part of the road to success. Maybe you’ve heard of some of these examples of failure leading to success.
-Fred Smith, the founder of FedEx, was given a C grade for a college paper detailing his idea for a reliable overnight delivery service. The reason? “The idea was not feasible.”
-When a reporter asked Thomas Edison, “How did it feel to fail 1,000 times?” Edison replied, “I didn’t fail 1,000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps.”
-Oprah was fired from her first TV job as a TV anchor. Her supervisors said she was “too emotional” and “unfit for TV.”
-The Post-It Note was created when a 3M employee discovered their adhesive was not strong enough for permanent adhesion. With that “failure”, a temporary sticky note was born.
-J.K. Rowling was rejected by 12 publishers when pitching the Harry Potter series.
-Beyonce performed as part of a female act called Girl Tyme, losing to a metal band on the TV show Star Search. Queen B didn’t give up her dream and kept giving it her all.
-Michael Jordan famously said, “I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
These stories remind us that the outcome of our fears and the ramifications of failure are far more survivable than we realize.
Why do we resist failure?
If failure is such an essential part of our journey to true success, why do we resist failure? Why do we avoid adversity, much less the possibility of a loss?
Our identity is often closely tied to our performance. When we fail, our response exposes the source and security of our identity. Defining ourselves by what we do AND how we do it is setting ourselves up for disaster when failure happens. I did not write “if” but “when” because we will all fail. Aristotle was correct when he said, “the only way to avoid failure is to say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.”
When we fail, there are some relationships which will change. Certain people are only in our lives because of our success. I mentioned Oprah earlier. I love how she talked about how failure changes our relationships. “Lots of people want to ride with you in the limo, but what you want is someone who will take the bus with you when the limo breaks down.”
We resist failure because we know some won’t like us as much after we fail. If the approval of people is our driving motivation, we will avoid any risk of failure.
We resist failure because when we fail, we think we are a failure. Sometimes, others try to define us by an event of failure. “He’s the guy who ________ 10 years ago.” Or “She’s the woman whose _____________ last fall.” It’s ignorant of me to say that our failure won’t be associated with us for a season. For some of us, a failure will follow us for a lifetime.
But, here’s the thing we must be clear on before exploring anything else. Failure is an event, not a person. Go back and read that again. Failure is something that happened (or will happen) to you or me, but it is not who we are. Others may associate a failure with us, but that failure is not the definition of who we are.
My Battle with Failure
This is a very important idea for me. I’m a recovering self-punching bag. When I’ve made big mistakes and hurt the people around me, my tendency is to beat myself up. And while I know many of us know this habit, I take things to an unhealthy level.
When my wife and I got married, I became afraid of failing and disappointing Dani. I hated not meeting her expectations or being unable to do or be all wanted. I would apologize and apologize and then be disgusted with myself and be very down on myself.
Dani had to patiently and consistently teach me that I was going to fail to keep promises, but that failure didn’t define me in her eyes. Once I apologized, she forgave me and moved on. Before I ever heard or could articulate the phrase “failure is an event, not a person”, she taught me this truth. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I tell you that knowing I’m not a failure when I fail my wife has transformed my marriage.
What Can Failure Create in Us?
Failure enables us to experience some very important things we might not find any other way.
Failure shows us what really matters. How many times does a crisis occur and we look back on it with gratitude bc of what came from it? Sometimes, the clarity we want lies on the other side of the failure we won’t risk. After all, isn’t this the kind of clarity Jesus mentioned when he asked his disciples, “What does it profit a man to gain the world and lose his soul?”
Those who have failed and come back stronger are those with the grit to finish their work and complete their projects. In her famous TED talk and subsequent book, Angela Duckworth shares her research that grit is a primary indicator of success in young children. If we want character which perseveres, we need failure to provide the context for that grit development.
Failure reveals commitment. How much does that goal matter? How much do you want that dream? In college, schools intentionally place “weed out classes” to determine which students will progress forward in a major. For pre-med, there is organic chemistry. Accounting and/or Finance for business. Anatomy and Physiology for Nursing. While some debate the value or role of these classes, I saw this approach reveal the presence and lack of commitment in friends during my college years.
Failure shows us what not to do. As Edison said, he didn’t fail 1,000 times while trying to invent the lightbulb – he learned 1,000 ways that didn’t work. We move further faster when we learn from others. It is important to study others’ failures. Whether that means reading biographies, interviewing people you admire or getting coaching, the fastest way to success is leveraging failure.
Remember, failure is an event, never a person. You will fail but you aren’t one. Don’t let your fear of failure keep you from seizing the opportunity of a lifetime!
What Has Failure Taught You? How Has Failure Transformed You?
I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.