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Why Failure is Not an Enemy You Need to Fear

July 21, 2019

What makes us withhold ourselves from each other and from life? What keeps us from being totally “in?”

That’s easy. It’s the what ifs. What if I fail? What if I look like a fool? What if I fail? What if I don’t know how to do it? What if I fail? What if it’s never been done? What if I fail? What if I don’t like it when I get there? What if I fail?

Now that I have your attention, let’s bring some reality to this brain-teaser.

The big truth is that failure has gotten a bad rap. It’s the only way we humans move forward, make progress, and grow into functioning, reasoning adults.

Babies learn to walk through failure. We may be the only species that doesn’t come into the world with all survival instincts at our immediate disposal. If somebody wasn’t modeling something for us, we’d be lying on our backs hollering as long as we had air in our lungs. Unlike other animal and plant species, it takes months, even years, for us to figure out how to navigate the world.

As we become stronger and better able to focus, something shifts. One day we’re babies on our backs staring at the ceiling, but after enough unsuccessful attempts to lift our heads (repetitive failures), we learn to hold them up. We learn to roll over by trying countless times before we succeed (repetitive failures).

We learn to walk by failing in steps. We get up on our knees, start crawling around and exploring the environment. Once we’ve seen other people on their feet, we find crawling too confining, and we decide to give getting up on our feet a shot. After many tries, much head banging on coffee tables and falls on our butts later, we’re up, steady on our feet, and there’s no stopping us.

Though we failed over and over and over, we had enough confidence in ourselves to keep at it. Just as important, we had everybody rooting for us, encouraging us to get up and try it again. Nobody was doing it for us or telling us to play it safe and not stand or walk. They knew we needed to figure it out for ourselves, and they were ecstatic when we kept at it and did just that.

But who roots us on when we fail today? Where did our cheerleaders go? What happened?

I think it works like this: through no real fault of our own, as teenagers and adults, we succumb to primal and instinctual fears of change and the unknown. We find some measure of security when we join the group think  (the practice of thinking or making decisions as a group in a way that discourages creativity or individual responsibility) position that failure is bad. A form of amnesia overcomes us, one that allows us to forget what we once knew: that the only way we learn, grow, stretch, and overcome is through multiple failures that teach us how not to do something so we can change course and eventually do it in a way that gets us where we want to go!

Over the last ten or fifteen years, I’ve adopted the mantra, “So what?” So what if I fail? So what if someone rejects me? So what if I don’t know how to do it? So what if it takes ten years?

I’m not encouraging you to go out and invest your life savings in a popcorn stand because you’ve always loved popcorn and hate your job. I’m not encouraging you to behave in ways that are inconsistent with your moral code or values. I am suggesting that the ways we withhold ourselves in our jobs, in our self-care, in our ability to tolerate discomfort and ambiguity, and most especially in our relationships, aren’t serving us.

Yes, get another job if your current one isn’t giving you growth and healthy rewards. Yes, leave unhealthy relationships with yourself and others behind. Have some fun. Be overtly kind. Do something for somebody else. Drop the pieces of baggage that aren’t serving you.

Finally, don’t let anyone, ever, influence you to withhold and play it safe because of their fear of failure.

Get out there and fail! Fail as often as possible on your way to arriving at where you want to be. Play as many different sports and learn as many musical instruments as you’re moved to learn. Try out as many careers as you want. The idea is to get a feel for, and get closer to, what really lights you up and brings you joy.

Teach your kids to take risks that will sometimes end in a failure that will be a step in the direction of their dreams. Cheerlead your friends to get up and try something else to get them where they want to be. And most important of all, remind yourself that with every failure, you have identified multiple ways of not doing something that have brought you closer to knowing how to do it, whatever it is. Have faith in your failings. They may be the path to your greatest achievements.

Much love,