Image by Claire May
Few things are more defining in life than one’s relationship with failure, and up until a few years ago I had it all wrong.
Being somewhat obsessed with perfect execution, failure has always acted like a poison that seeped into the food and air supply where I failed. Failure revealed to me, and to those around me, that I was not of high quality. Failure soiled my surroundings and caused a deep psychological wound in me that required months or years of healing.
Failure was, quite simply, the worst thing that ever happened to me–whenever it happened.
To say I “took it personally” is like saying the universe is big. It was like being emotionally thrashed by a team of professional interrogators while suffering sleep depravation. It was scarring. It was as if I was the only one that failed, while everyone I was striving to become would be ashamed of me.
Then I started reading…a lot. I cannot remember exactly what it was, but I believe it was a classic. It may have come to me while reading Candide, or maybe a summary of Spinoza’s life, although it really just set the point rather than made it.
I at once realized that failure is to be laughed at. People who think you, or call you, a failure are to be laughed at. And you are to laugh at yourself when you fail as well. We’ve heard the cliche of brushing yourself off and charging on when you fail? Well, this is the perfect example of a cliche doing damage by diluting the message.
Understand that I’ve not changed my approach to pursuing success. I still have the same–some would say “German”–obsession with detail and structure that goes into engineering a successful outcome. The difference is that I am now able to pivot very quickly to, “Well, that sucked a lot.”, and move on to conquer the next item.
The real message, which is the one that hit me at this moment, is that the most accomplished people throughout history were often–or maybe even usually–absolute failures. They went from failure to failure, suffering deep and cutting wounds to their psyche and confidence, but ultimately never stopped pursuing what they were doing. And some didn’t even suffer the damage–they just kept pushing through.
There’s also a great video by Michael Jordan (I’m not a basketball guy myself) that captures this brilliantly. He basically counts the number of times he’s let everyone down by missing the game-winning shot. He chronicles all the various times he failed. And he succinctly captures the fact that he only could have succeeded the few times that he did by pushing through the countless more times that he failed.
All these data points, plus the lives of the philosophers I was studying, all collapsed into one simple concept for me: laugh at failure. Laugh at people who doubt you. Literally. Look at failure as proof you’re actually doing something. Adopt as part of your philosophy that if you’re not failing then you’re probably not doing anything worthwhile.
One could almost learn, as a psychological device, to wear failure as a trophy to greatness. If you have five failed startups you’re probably a badass. If you got fired from a key executive position from Apple, you’re probably a badass. Powerful and interesting and valuable people don’t necessarily not feel the pain of failure, but they handle it differently. They redirect that force back into their work, using it as fuel to power their desire to show the world that they have something to offer–however many failures that takes.
And it should sting when it happens. Embrace that. Lick the wound, savor the taste of your own blood, and smile warmly at the fact that you had the balls to make the effort. Then continue on, all the while knowing you’re about to fail again–1,000 more times.
Failure, more than anything else, enables success. Every other type of preparation and study and talent merely gets you to the point of a quality effort. But if you cannot overcome failure, and even learn to cherish it as an ever-present mentor, then you’ll never be anything at all.
The big project, the big presentation, the big pitch, the big customer, the big art show, the big book release–whatever it is, if it fails completely and you’re crushed–roll around in that. Rub the hurt on your body like icy-hot and smile after you cry. Know, as a point of fact, that every single deeply successful person in the world has felt that exact feeling hundreds or thousands of times.
Understand, most of all, that the difference between noteworthy people and those who will never make a single mark on the world, is how they handle this sensation. Learn to embrace it, smile at it, to wear it as a badge, and treat it as fuel for your continued drive. Do this and you’ll have given yourself an advantage beyond measure.