The Gift of Failure

“I am such a failure.”

If you are anything like me, there have been times when you have said those words to yourself. Maybe not in public, maybe not out loud, but in your mind’s voice.

You didn’t get that promotion. You forgot that important meeting. You managed to burn the family’s Christmas turkey. Failure comes in many shapes and sizes. And sometimes your failure isn’t even obvious to other people – just to yourself.

I want to share some thoughts on how we are shaped to think around failure and how that thinking can actually stop us from accepting the gift it can be. Secondly, I’ll be revealing how failure can actually turn into a success when we least expect it.

  1. So – what does it mean to fail?
    Society today is so focussed on success and achievement, that failing at a task can make us feel like a failure as a person. We forget that behind what we call success there is very often hard work and a long series of failed attempts at succeeding. We forget that all those little stumbles we make on the path towards achievement hold the opportunity to grow and learn and better ourselves and try harder, work smarter, try new things, grow as a person.When we’re afraid of failing, we can sometimes be tricked into not even trying. Because if we don’t try, at least we can’t fail – right?

    Fear of failure can be crippling. It can prevent us from realising our own potential. Imagine, for example, that Lisa and Tony both dream of climbing Mount Everest. Lisa decides to make an attempt, but Tony is afraid of not being able to do it, so he stays home. Lisa starts the climb, but only two days in she sprains her wrist and is forced to leave the expedition. She feels incredibly disappointed in having to go home without achieving your goal. But something’s happened. Something has changed in her. The experience has made her braver – AND more likely to succeed next time. Because now she knows exactly what the climate is like, what the pitfalls are, how to prepare. The threshold has been lowered. But for Tony, the fear is still there, because he hasn’t seen it. He doesn’t know what it’s like. So instead of taking his first few baby steps, he stays where he is.

    It’s like the old Chinese proverb: If you don’t climb mountain, mountain climbs you. (Actually, that’s not a real Chinese proverb. I made it up. But it helps get the message across).

  2. Now to my second point: The potential of failure.
    How many of you have heard of a gentleman called Spencer Silver? He was an engineer who worked at 3M in 1968, trying to develop super strong adhesives for use in the aerospace industry. But he didn’t do very well. In fact – instead of a super strong adhesive, he accidentally managed to create an incredibly weak and pressure sensitive glue, which went on to become the glue component of the famous Post-It Note.This is possibly one of the best examples of how one failed innovation can spark another, very useful, one. In fact, it turned out to become one of the most successful innovations in modern stationery. It’s today used by millions of people on a daily basis. What does that tell you about failure?Another person, with maybe a more familiar name, is Dale Carnegie. He was one of the most successful business lecturers of the last century. One of his most famous quotes is “Discouragement and failure are two of the surest stepping stones to success.”What he’s saying is that failure is not just something random that will come and go; he’s saying that failure is an essential part of becoming successful.

    In summary: Failure is something that we should welcome with open arms. We should embrace the opportunity to learn how NOT to do something – because it means that we improve the success rate when we try again.

For example – think of a 10 month old baby. A cute, clumsy, curious baby. How many times every day does it try to do something, and fails completely? It drops things, it falls, it hits people by mistake. A baby’s failure rate is astonishingly high. But – how quickly does a baby develop? How much progress does it make in a year, six months, even just one month? What does that tell you? It should tell you that failure is good – it means you are testing your boundaries, stretching your abilities. Growing and growing.

If you’re battling feelings of being a failure, I have three suggestions for you.

  • Focus on gratitude. Look at what you do have, look at your strengths, appreciate yourself and be grateful for what you have achieved so far.
  • See every attempt as a building block of success. Sometimes to build a strong foundation, you need lay down plenty of blocks to build on.
  • Keep smiling. You can’t win if you’re a victim. Don’t let failure get you down, but use it as a motivator. Keep trying.

You are not a failure.


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