Tips  on spiritual growth, emotional health, and relational healing.


Failure, Regret and a Milk Carton

Jan 26, 2016

My kids don’t realize it yet, but they often miss huge opportunities.

Like when my oldest son refuses to eat his dinner, he doesn’t realize he’s getting less read books before bed – and he’s gonna regret it when he’s hungry while falling asleep. (This happened again just last night!)

Or when my daughter kept crawling because she was comfortable, even though we knew she was fully capable of walking and moving around much faster.

Or when my youngest son wants me to pick him up 10 minutes before we have to leave and cries nonstop, he’s missing out on terrorizing his older sister while he can still get away with it.

We all have opportunities in front of us. And many of us, sadly, misunderstand those opportunities.

Opportunities and Milk Cartons

failure regret milk carton

We think our opportunities will be around forever. But, each of our opportunities is like the carton of milk in the refrigerator – it has an expiration date after which it will no longer be usable.

We think all opportunities are created equal. Opportunities come in every shape and size, missing one is not like missing another. Seizing one can mean much more than seizing another.

We make our lives from the opportunities we’re presented – what we do or don’t do with them. I also believe we can create additional opportunities tomorrow by how we embrace our opportunities today.

Fear of Failure

Last week, I was scrolling through my Timehop app. (Side note – one of my favorite apps. For this somewhat nostalgic person, pictures of children when smaller, old quotes you forgot and past memories with friends – this app is like finding buried treasure every morning).

As I was scrolling, I found this quote from Todd Adkins.

“Fear has killed more dreams than failure ever will.”

This quote reminded me of the way we confuse opportunities. We think the opportunity to fail is the biggest thing to note, so we pull back with fear. But the truth is we often have more to lose by not trying than we do by trying and failing. 

There are some opportunities where failure is fatal including skydiving, base-jumping, military training or combat. There are some jobs where failure is fatal including fields like the police, firefighting, aviation or space travel.

Is failure or regret worse for us?

But failure is rarely as fatal as our fear tells us. Getting a “no” after we make a bold request is rarely fatal. Seeing little response to a moment of vulnerability hurts, but we are able to move forward. Taking a job which turns out to be a bad fit is not a life sentence to vocational misery.

What lasts a lifetime is not failure but regret over missed opportunities. 

Regret is an awareness that we misvalued what we was truly important. That’s what Bronie Ware’s best-selling book, The Top Five Regrets of The Dying, taught me. (I share some of those lessons here.)

failure - top 5 regrets of the dying

Regret becomes more powerful (and even paralyzing or crushing) when we feel like we have less resources or opportunities to live based upon what is truly important. This is the lesson from the research of Cornell social psychologists, Tom Gilovich and Vicki Medvec. They found the nature of what we regret changes over time. In the short term, we obsess over failure. In the long term, we lose sleep over missed opportunities.

In my experience and in watching other people’s lives, I’ve found that failure isn’t a primary determiner of someone’s future. The response to failure is what makes all the difference. 

If we’re too afraid to even try because we might fail, we probably won’t get anywhere near success. But if we’re willing to try and fail, we’ll probably discover what it takes to succeed.

The Truth About Failure and Regret

I don’t have any list of steps or tips today about how you can overcome the fear of failure. I just wanted to remind you (and frankly myself) of some important truths.

The opportunities we have today and the ones we’ll meet tomorrow are like milk – they’ll expire sooner rather than later. 

Failure isn’t nearly as fatal as we think. 

We may be missing out an opportunity because we’re stuck in a way of thinking that’s inaccurate or untrue. 

Don’t let fear kills your dreams today. Be courageous in the face of your fear!

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