A Life of Failure

Failure is underrated.

IMG_4042_2I have abundant experience in this arena. I poured weeks of work into two 100-page federal grant applications that earned polite rejection letters. Tied to the end of a rope, I’ve plummeted off rock climbs again and again, most recently only a foot from the top of the cliff – literally, twelve inches from grabbing the last hold.

With trepidation, I joined Moab Toastmasters, a public speaking club where I stumble over my words and struggle to express myself clearly, or sometimes – gulp – at all. I’ve said things in meetings and in the halls at work and in emails that later made me blush.

One time I admonished a student in the wrong way for distracting his classmates at exactly the wrong moment, and embarrassed him. I’ve earnestly written passages for a novel that turned out so ridiculous my wife and I later laughed until we cried while remembering a teen practicing kung-fu forms in the haunted forest under the secret gaze of a mooning love interest.

Old_Running_ShoesOne of my most spectacular fails: I trained for months to run a 100-mile trail race only to drop out six miles from the finish line.

This is just the beginning of my catalogs of missteps. Sometimes I take aim at too lofty a goal, but most often, I just screw up. I make mistakes.

As the years roll past and the errors mount, I’ve come to see failure as one of the most powerful things about being human. I’m not talking about failures that cost someone their life or injure people. I’m talking about those moments when we mess up in a way that teaches something about the limits of social decorum, the law of reduced flexibility with age, the constraints of physics, which dance move is no longer hip, about how the world works.

Murphy's Law: Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.

Murphy’s Law: Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.

I totally understand nobody wants to fail. We aim at perfection – in our duties on the job, as a spouse, in raising a child. However, no matter how careful we are, someday something will go wrong. Just check out a blooper reel from the latest romantic comedy. Even the world’s best actors aren’t perfect, and honestly, their mistakes sometimes entertain more than the film itself.

So here’s where the magic happens: in light of the fact that failure is inevitable, despite best laid plans and any devotion to excellence, I have two options. I can take the normal route of denial and cling to the voice of the ego who avoids risks and refuses to admit defeat. Or I can acknowledge my fallibility and embrace these blunders as opportunities. I can take those grant proposals and turn them into successful applications to other organizations. I can use those climbing moves on a new route. That’s the magic of humanity – the ability to remember and improve upon the past, to turn failure into flourishing.

Baby

According to studies, one of the reasons children learn things so fast, like new words and novel motor skills, is their willingness to make mistakes. Children haven’t yet adopted our aversion to failure; in trying, failing, and trying again, they grow.

The other boon of failure is this: it means we’ve striven for something. Even though I didn’t finish that 100-mile race, it was one of the best experiences of my life. Those months of training weren’t wasted. Rather, I saw many beautiful miles of trails, shared smiles with fellow runners, tasted rain on my lips, discovered the limits of my endurance.

So I hereby make a resolution. I resolve to take myself less seriously. I’m only human. Maybe I’ll try that new dance move after all. Perhaps I’ll write another (somewhat less absurd) novel. I’ll attempt the difficult rock climb that looms beautiful and intimidating over the crag. I will do these things because failure isn’t embarrassing. Faux pas isn’t fatal. And there’s no shame in trying, only possibility.

403187I take inspiration from Michael Jordan who said, “I’ve failed over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” From Thomas Edison who said, “I have not failed. I have discovered 10,000 ways that won’t work.” And from my father, a successful city manager who has told me more than once, “If I do something well, it’s only because I’ve made a mistake before.”

By embracing the risk involved in being human, perhaps I can find a little more inspiration and success, even in failure.

(Original published in the Moab Sun News, 1/8/14)

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7 thoughts on “A Life of Failure

  1. Wow! You certainly didn’t fail at this post. I really enjoy your heartwarming writings.

    I have been having difficulty with the question: how do we teach children to embrace their mistakes? There is, after a point, a serious aversion to them, and perhaps it develops at different stages.

    One idea I have is that they see “perfect” examples all around them, in their parents and teachers. This is a false illusion, and I like what your dad says: that a person is a good at something because of failure. But even in school, students see perfect science, perfect writing in novelists and essayists, they are bombarded with examples of the greats, heroes to model their actions after, but are rarely told the backstory. It is tragic. I think history might be the only place this doesn’t happen, and then it is all just a big bummer.

    Any thoughts? I know I will share your post with more people. I feel like a real human wrote it.

    Thank you so much.

    • Thanks for your comment, philosopheriturist. Yes, I think we all would benefit from knowing more backstory, not just about the heroes of our world, but also about regular human beings — our parents and teachers and neighbors.

  2. You hit the nail on the head. I think people most likely to be sucessful are those who aren’t afraid to fail. You have learned this lesson at a much younger age than I have. In fact, I have to keep reminding myself of this. Our society needs to teach our kids the importance of failure as a learning tool. I tried to teach my students this lesson but it is hard to teach something you haven’t embraced yourself. Sometimes it felt like empty words as I told them mistakes are something we learn from. Your examples were inspiring.

    • I suppose there’s a balance we have to find somewhere between striving for success and accepting failure. And it’s a balance that seems to require regular recalibration! 🙂 Like most things, we can’t always get it right. And therein lies the beautiful unknown, our opportunity to appreciate the steps forward AND the steps back.

  3. It often feels like we have to go against our nature to be better humans. Attribution errors are a great example of this, in particular the self-serving bias. This bias describes the way in which we attribute successes to our own amazingness and failures to some external force or person. It is a useful bias from a survival point of view in that it boosts our self-esteem and protects our egos and thus allows us to strive ahead. The thing is, this bias doesn’t really exist in many places around the world. In Japan, for example, they have a modesty bias which is the exact opposite in terms of attribution. So perhaps this fear of failure or difficulty in seeing failures as opportunities is far more Western a problem than we may at first realise.

  4. Have read no further than ‘As the years roll past…’ just yet, but wanted to thank you for this beauty you have shared. So… thank you! 🙂

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