Because we are human, we cannot help but fail. We suffer from failed relationships,failed marriages, failed parenting, failure at work, failure in health. And when we do fail, the wounds may penetrate so deeply into our psyche that we begin to think, "I am a failure," rather than "I failed." We might begin to make safe choices, to settle for less than we really want, out of fear of failure. What would it be like to cast failure in a different light?
"Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat."
Had it not been for failure, humankind may never have known the magnificent Audubon bird paintings that gave rise to the Audubon Society or the inspiring music of Handel’s Messiah, sung every year at Christmastime around the world.
It was only after John James Audubon’s business failed in 1819 that he began traveling and painting birds. George Frederick Handel unleashed his creative genius after a night of deep despair over his failure as a musician (he lived in poverty and had suffered a stroke).
The world landscape is strewn with such stories of success rising from the ashes of failure. Yet failure tends to strike fear in our hearts like nothing else. There is so little tolerance for it in our culture and tremendous pressure to get it right every time, to be in control, to succeed and win.
What would it be like to cast failure in a different light, to take it out of the darkness of disgrace and guilt, to remove the feeling of "disaster" associated with failure, to look for what it tells us about our well-being and our conduct in life? What enormous amounts of energy would be freed up? And for what?
"You may have a fresh start any moment you choose, for this thing that we call ‘failure’ is not the falling down, but the staying down," said silent-film actress Mary Pickford.
Open Door to a New Success
Like Audubon, a failure can be a lever to open the door to a richer, more authentic life. Many a radical transformation has had failure at its root. Author Suzanne Falter-Barns says, "There really is no such thing as failure. There is only the rearrangement of plans and the surrender of ego. There is only the twist in the road we never expect."
Sometimes we need to be jolted out of our routine and back into the essential work of creating ourselves. Failure doesn’t just clear its throat, it blows a trumpet in our ears and stirs up all the creative juices. We can’t help but respond with passion and drive, as Handel did while composing the Messiah.
Promote Risk-Taking and Change
Failure is a natural offshoot of adventure and risk-taking, and growth is a natural offshoot of failure. Great courage is needed to face real change. A great failure can be the influence that enables us to risk and change.
Getting Through It
In his book Care of the Soul: A Guide for Cultivating Depth and Sacredness in Everyday Life, Thomas Moore writes: "If we could understand the feelings of inferiority and humbling occasioned by failure as meaningful in their own right, then we might incorporate failure into our work so that it doesn’t literally devastate us."
Here are a few suggestions for working constructively (succeeding!) with failure:
Acknowledge your feelings of pain, humiliation and/or inadequacy.
Laugh, if you can. A little bit of humor goes a long way in learning to accept failure.
Acknowledge your responsibility. Don’t deny the importance of the failure, but neither let it overwhelm you with guilt. Guilt isn’t helpful; taking responsibility is.
Forgive yourself. Forgiveness doesn’t take away the consequences or the memory of the failure, but it does soften the fall and clear a path for the next step.
Build a base of supportive people. Share the reality of your life. When you stop hiding shame and denying negative feelings, issues are quickly surfaced and resolved.
No self-recrimination. Replace "If only..." with "Next time..." to keep focused on the future.
Reflect. Seek not to blame but to search for the wisdom beneath the failure. With real curiosity, ask yourself these questions: -How can this failure serve me? -What does this setback mean? -What have I learned and gained? -How can I use this failure? -How can I see it in a different way? -What is positive here? -What am I really trying to accomplish?
Expect to make mistakes again. Some organizations are now building in this expectation and experiencing the enormous potential for innovation, teamwork and achievement that is unleashed when the fear of failure is removed. Individuals can experience the same potential.
Ultimately, failure is not about loss, deficiency and flaws. It’s about learning lessons and courageously moving on. It’s about retaining hope and the instinct for joy. The lessons of failure make us wiser, stronger and more prepared for the rest of our journey, if we take them with us.