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.
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.
But 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, 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 the Door to a New Success: Like Audubon's, 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.”
Spark Creativity: Sometimes we need to be jolted out of our routine and back into the essential work of creating our lives. 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 common offshoot of adventure and risk-taking, and growth can be a natural offshoot of failure. Great courage is often needed to make real change, and a great failure can be the influence that gives us that courage and enables us to risk and change.
How to Succeed in Failure
Acknowledge your feelings of pain, humiliation and/or inadequacy.
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.
Laugh, if you can. A little bit of humor goes a long way in accepting 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.
No self-recrimination. 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. Replace “If only…” with “Next time…” to keep focused on the future.
Reflect. Find the lessons 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 build in this expectation and experience enormous innovation, teamwork and achievement unleashed when the fear of failure is removed. Individuals can experience the same.
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.
Author’s content used under license, © 2008 Claire Communications