Failure is not the end of the story; but the beginning of the comeback
Failure can feel like a really big word, with a very heavy price tag. We’ve all experienced failure in our lives, and anyone who claims they haven’t is, well, they’re either lying or they’re in a state of denial. So, if failure is part of the human experience, why do we fear it so much? Some people have such a great fear of failure that it keeps them from ever taking action in their lives at all.
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Let’s take a closer look at failure and see if we can’t come up with a more wholehearted definition, one that speaks to the critical nature of failure the value that comes from embracing our failures as essential steps (albeit painful ones) to becoming our best and full selves. And whether this speaks to you because you are working towards something specific or because at this point you feel like you’re simply failing at life, I would love to hear all of your thoughts in the comments below.
Failure and the Ego
For many people the idea of failure is ego-based, meaning it comes from that tiny bully in the mind that loves to dish out judgement, and feelings of shame and fear. From this perspective, the act of failure is connected to the value we place on ourselves as people. It shows up in the beliefs of I am not good enough because I failed, and who did I think I was for even trying. What is more, this idea of failure lends itself to the concept that when we fall, it’s game over. We are inadequate. We’ve lost both the battle and the war. So when we think of failure on these terms, it would make complete sense that we would want to avoid it at all costs, especially public failures, because then our shame is on display for the whole world to see. And who in their right mind is signing up for that? Unfortunately, by avoiding failure we, by default, also end up avoiding success, joy, happiness and fulfillment. That’s a pretty big expense, especially if this definition isn’t necessarily true to begin with.
If we take a step back and look at the whole picture we can see that failure is not the opposite of success, but instead a critical component of success. What is more, failure can arguably be considered our greatest teacher, and when we experience failure we also experience its cousins; knowledge, courage and ingenuity. When we look at failure as a stepping stone, a guiding point and place to reassess how we are going to keep moving forward we can better grasp that failure does not lead to broken dreams and diminished value as humans, but instead to greater resilience and wisdom. The truth is we need failure in our journeys to ground us, give us strength and to point us in the next direction. Can it really be a coincidence that there are so many stories of people finding success only on the heels of failure?
Budgeting for Failure
I know. Failure itself is bad enough, who really wants to think about preparing for it ahead of time. But there are some definite advantages to thinking about and becoming almost comfortable with the idea of failure (because, realistically, no one is ever going to be completely comfortable).
In her TED Talk, Shark Tank host Barbara Corcoran discusses the idea of a “failure budget”. In her case, Barbara physically allocates money to her staff each year to be spent on potential “failures”. By validating ahead of time that failures both do happen and are a part of the path to success it isn’t as gut-wrenching of an event when a failure does occur. It’s disappointing and stressful, sure, but not game over. The message sent by budgeting for failure is It will happen. You will learn something. Keep going and always keep trying.
Now you may or may not want to create a financial budget for failure, but it’s an interesting concept to think about. Is there a way that you can prepare for a rainy day ahead? What would your raincoat and umbrella look like? Even if you cannot foresee where the failure might take place, you can give yourself the insight that when it does happen, however it happens, you will be okay.
The Actual Experience of Failure
There are no words I can say, or metaphor I could use that would take away the simple fact that experiencing failure absolutely sucks. It is uncomfortable, distressing and sometimes even heartbreaking. It also effects our entire being, from helpless thinking to complete physical exhaustion. So what is the best thing you can do when failure happens?
Acknowledge it. Acknowledge the experience of falling flat on your face. I’ve discussed in several of my other articles the value in giving our pain a temporary voice; we’ve got to feel what we feel, understand why we’re feeling it, and then be able to say to ourselves This feeling won’t last forever. I’m going to be okay. We find ourselves in trouble if we try to either avoid the pain or give it the power to completely overwhelm us. So notice it, feel it, be curious about it, and offer yourself some grace and compassion before standing up and deciding on your next move.
The Comeback (Moving Forward from Failure)
Every great story has a comeback of sorts. It’s the part in the movie where the gritty, inspiring music begins to play and the main character slowly begins to rise from the ashes (literally or figuratively). The comeback is a spectacular time in the grand scheme of things, but doesn’t always feel that way in the moments preceding it.
It’s not uncommon to be slow getting up after a fall, especially what feel like “the big ones”. In fact, there’s a good chance that for a period of time you really won’t feel like getting up at all; more like you want to hit the snooze button on life. As I previously stated, give yourself some grace during these times. This can actually be a very critical time to recharge and reflect on what just happened. You will not immediately feel like getting back on the horse, and that’s okay, however at some point you are going to have to just do it, heels dragging and all. Sometimes the energy first has to come from action, and the mind will follow. It doesn’t have to be a big action, but just something.
Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the widely popular book, Eat Pray Love, describes her process of “going home” after a great failure, or a great success. She notes, “great success and failure catapult you in two opposite, yet equally far, directions — which wind up having the same psychological effect. Your subconscious is only capable of feeling the absolute value of those emotions. And there’s an equal danger of getting lost out there in the hinterlands.”
Elizabeth’s description of going home metaphorically means re-orienting oneself after the catapult by returning to the place that gives you meaning, joy and “life”. And that may look like many different things. Elizabeth refers to writing as “home”, as she says she “loves it more than life itself”. For you, this may be a physical place, a hobby, a passion, a relationship. The keynote here is do what you need to do so that you can approach you next step in an authentic way, even if you are still wounded.
Finally, connect with others and their stories. This can be in person or it can be by reading memoirs, biographies, watching YouTube videos or documentaries. There is no shortage when it comes to the narrative of failure in the lives of some pretty amazing people. Focus less on being inspired by the success of others, and instead become connected in the shared experience of failure.
The failures in your life may be really painful, but they are also defining moments in your story. Failure can be the moment that opens your eyes to an idea you never thought of, or an opportunity that would have never been presented to you if you hadn’t failed in the first place. Your choice to brush off the mud, wear your scars with pride and take your next step may be hard, but it can also be the very thing that leads to your next great moment.
What are your thoughts on failure? And what’s the greatest lesson failure has taught you?