“No human ever became interesting by not failing. The more you fail and recover and improve, the better you are as a person. Ever meet someone who’s always had everything work out for them with zero struggle? They usually have the depth of a puddle. Or they don’t exist.” - Chris Hardwick
If this is true, I’m super interesting and deep.
I’ve had my fair share of failures: failed auditions, failed interviews, failed jobs, failed relationships.
We often hear about success stories, but what about the dark side of success? What about when things don’t work out? What about failure?
Search the web, and you’re bound to find some feel-good posts and quotes about the power of failure. "Fail early and often" has become a popular catchphrase, yet fear of failure is about as universal as the need for connection and love.
We’re simultaneously being bludgeoned with the idea that we should boldly fail our way into success while internally struggling with the fear of face-planting and losing it all.
While failure is less than ideal, "...failure is inevitable in uncertain environments, and, if managed well, it can be a very useful thing," says Rita McGrath in the Harvard Business Review.
Of course, there are different causes of failure ranging from blameworthy to praiseworthy. We're shooting for the failure stars and want praiseworthy failure, which includes failure due to exploring and testing. Blameworthy failure is on the other end of the spectrum and is caused by inaction or deviance. Basically, it's where we fail because we didn't get up to bat or spat in the face of our challenge.
I’ve failed more times than I can remember.
I’ve failed spectacularly and quietly.
I’ve also failed to fail.
There is a comfort zone, a playground for the fearful, where we can hide behind the mask of good-but-not-great. It’s a really nice playground, and man is it a popular one! You'll never find yourself alone. Here, you can’t fall and get hurt. You can play in the sand, but they’ve taken the monkey bars away.
Larry Smith, Professor of Economics at the University of Waterloo, illustrates this perfectly in his Ted Talk: "You're going to fail, because -- because you're not going to do it, because you will have invented a new excuse, any excuse to fail to take action...”
The failure that leads to success, to "failing forward", is failure that results in observation and learning. It's what Duke University's Sim Sitkin calls "intelligent failure", where we accept and acknowledge our failure instead of lying to ourselves, and we take a look at how we can learn or change the next time around.
This isn’t failure due to absence of action or lack of intent. This is failure despite action and intent. This is failure in the face of playing full out.
This is where the magic in failure lies.
It's through failing, rather than being perfect the first time around, that we learn the most and grow. According to Tim Harford in Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure, "Success comes rapidly through fixing our mistakes rather than getting things right the first time."
There’s beauty in failure when it’s looked at this way.
Of course, failure is never the goal.
Failure is not meant to be glorified and turned into an excuse. Failure is, however, a reality, and when examined, can be used as a tool. For anyone who wants to do or create something better than good, I venture that failure is not only unavoidable, it’s necessary.
As Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist, says in his Ted Talk: “The greatest originals are the ones who fail the most because they're the ones who try the most... You need a lot of bad ideas in order to get a few good ones."
This is where we can take a cue from the rampant advice to “fail forward". Failure is an inevitable yin to successes yang. Without it, there’s a good chance we’re merely safely sitting on the sidelines of life.
When failure is the result of going out on a limb and trying something new, we can, with a step back and some perspective, learn what didn’t work and what we might try differently. We learn about ourselves in the process and what we're capable of. We can find new approaches and opportunities.
Steven Pressfield says in his new book, No One Wants To Read Your Shit: “I was seized by an idea. I followed it. It failed. I was seized by another idea. I followed it, and it failed too. I did that a hundred times. Five hundred. Finally an idea or two succeeded. While I was thrashing from one idea to the next, I could discern no pattern, It was all random. Each passage was one of a kind. But when I looked back, I could see not just a pattern. I could see a career. It had been there all along, infallibly working itself out.”
The question, then, isn’t whether or not you will fail. It’s will you be able to quiet your ego long enough to accept your failure and learn from it? How will you use your failure to propel yourself forward?
I'll leave you with J.K. Rowling's words from her commencement speech for Harvard: “...It is impossible to live without failing at something unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all. In which case, you failed by default. Failure gave me an inner security that I have never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way...”
I challenge you to fail. I challenge you to dare to fail and uncover your success in the process.