The word alone brings up feelings of inadequacy, shame, remorse, and a general feeling of being “lesser than” others. We learn at a young age that failure is “bad” and something to be avoided at all costs: maybe we got mocked by our teammates if we struck out while playing baseball or maybe we got in trouble when we got a poor grade on a test or perhaps we hurt ourselves when trying to learn how to do a cartwheel.
Regardless of when and how we learned that failure is bad, we tend to carry that belief forward with us through our lives. And this belief of avoiding failure at all costs can hold us back significantly as we got through life.
When we think of failure, many of us think of doing something and not having it come out the way we had hoped it would.
That’s not failure.
True failure is when we hold ourselves back from doing or trying something because of our fear of being ridiculed, looking or feeling stupid and/or making a mistake.
Most people have heard that Thomas Edison had multiple failures when trying to invent the light bulb…over 9,000 of them in fact. But his perspective, when asked about it, is one that we should all carry forward: “Why would I feel like a failure? And why would I ever give up? I now know definitely over 9,000 ways an electric light bulb will not work. Success is almost in my grasp.”
Thomas Edison had the right perspective. When we do something, and it fails to go the way we had hoped, there is still value in our actions. There are gifts inherent in failure:
- We are one step closer to success. Even if we don’t get it right, we are still doing better than if we hadn’t taken that step in the first place. I remember reading years ago about a woman who was in her 90s and going to university for her degree. People asked her why she was going to school at such an old age, and some people even mocked her. She ignored those who made fun of her, and to those that asked her why she was going for her degree, she said something along the lines of- I have always wanted to get my college degree, but my life circumstances when I was younger would not allow me to do it. This has been my dream, and I figure I can either get to the age I am without the degree or get to this age and have the degree. I chose the latter – it doesn’t matter when we accomplish a dream, just that we go after it.
- We learn something new. When we try something that doesn’t go the way we wanted it to, we are given the opportunity to narrow down our focus and eventually figure out what we need to be or do to be successful in our endeavor. That old saying, “If at first, you don’t succeed, try, try again” applies here.
- It makes us stronger and more adaptable. When something doesn’t work out, we learn to pick ourselves up, dust off and try something different. We learn to look at the situation from another perspective to keep moving forward.
- It helps us understand the depth of our passion for what we are trying to do and develop resilience to keep trying. When something doesn’t work out and we continue to get up and try again, we know that it is really important to us. We’ve all heard the story of how The Beatles were turned down by numerous music labels but how they didn’t give up because they were so passionate about their music.
- By taking action, we are living a life of courage and rich experiences rather than one where we hold ourselves back out of fear of failure.
Let me share a personal example: My second book was just published. I am really excited about this book and decided that I wanted to use a different publisher than I did for my first book. For my first book, I went with a hybrid publisher. For my second book, I wanted to try to get it published with a traditional publisher. Getting published with a traditional publisher is not easy. Most require that you work with a literary agent – someone who represents your book and tries to sell it on your behalf. I didn’t want to have to work with a literary agent and researched traditional publishers that didn’t require an agent.
Traditional publishers get thousands of submissions. Of those submissions, they typically only ask about 1% to send them more information or a complete manuscript. Of that one percent, an equally small number are selected to make an offer to.
I sent out about 20 proposals and got a response back from a publisher that I was very interested in, asking for the full manuscript. Excited beyond belief, I sent him the full manuscript and then waited. About a month later I got an email from him, saying, “I am interested in publishing this book. After reading the first few chapters, I can tell you are a skilled writer who can communicate concepts easily in a style that keeps the reader’s attention. If the rights are still available, I’d like to present you with a publishing proposal.”
This is the email every single author wants to get…and you would guess that getting it published with a traditional publisher was a success for me. Well, not quite. I waited for the proposal and it never came. After a couple follow-up emails, I heard back from the publisher, who said basically that even though the book was good, he decided not to publish it because upon reflection the genre of the book didn’t fully align with the other books that he had published.
I’m not going to lie to you. I was disappointed. I felt like a failure and even started questioning the book itself. I took some deep breaths, stepped back and asked myself if I really was a failure. And here is what I came up with:
- No, I did not fail. I had gotten an offer for a proposal! That is a success and talks to the value and quality of the book itself.
- No, I did not fail, because I learned how to write a compelling book proposal and cover letter that was able to get a positive response from a publisher. I also learned more about the process of working with a traditional publisher.
- No, I did not fail, because I have other options to publish my book. I could research and send out proposals to other traditional publishers. I could work with my previous publisher. I could research other hybrid publishers. I could self-publish.
- No, I did not fail, because I still feel strongly that this book is valuable and is one that people will not only enjoy reading but also learn something from. My belief in the book wasn’t shaken after all.
- And no, I did not fail, because I still wanted to publish the book after the publisher changed his mind. In fact, I am a successful writer that received some very positive feedback from an experienced publisher.
I was able to see the many gifts – all five in fact – that this process and perceived failure had brought to me. I ended up deciding to self-publish, primarily because I wanted to have full control over the book publishing process. So far, it has been great and I’m learning even more as I go through the process.
But what if you can’t see the gifts? Here are some ideas to get you thinking that way:
Remember that failure is a part of life. We would never get anywhere if we didn’t try. What if babies, after trying their first steps and falling, decided to give up? We would all just be sitting around on the floor. Doing something new or different takes practice, and we’re going to have a few bumps and missteps along the way. It’s just part of life.
- Change your perspective from it being a failure to something that provides feedback and a learning opportunity. You are learning something that helps point you in a different direction that will bring you closer to your goal. What have you learned from this experience? What would you do differently? What would you do the same?
- Recognize that the thing that didn’t work out is completely separate from you. Yes, you may have put your blood, sweat and tears into whatever it is, but that thing is just that – a thing, an object, an action. The action failed. The object or thing didn’t take off like you had hoped. A relationship didn’t go the way you wanted it to. And yes, you can learn from it (and hopefully do something different the next time!), but because IT failed doesn’t mean YOU are a failure. This is a really important distinction, because I think a lot of us internalize the failure of something or action as us being a failure. It failed, you didn’t. You are a success because you overcame some fear, stepped forward and tried.
- Success isn’t easy. It takes practice, repetition and hard work. While there may be situations where we see someone have “beginner’s luck,” even then, maintaining the success takes work. When you see an athlete execute their sport flawlessly and seemingly effortlessly, know that they had hours and hours of practice and a number of failures along the way. When you see a relationship that mirrors what you are looking for in a relationship, know that the couple has had their fair share of good times, bad times, disagreements and happy loving times and they have decided to work together to create the relationship. Be willing to do the work and practice.
- Approach each failure with a sense of curiosity and wonder, as in: I wonder what will happen if I do this? I’m curious…If I try this differently, will it change the outcome?
- Learn to let go of other peoples’ judgments and perspectives of you – especially if they are holding you back from trying something you want to. Instead, check in with your heart to determine if this is something that you are passionate about and then go do it. If possible, surround yourself with people who will cheer you on.
- Stay positive! If you are struggling with this, spend some time thinking back on where this fear or aversion of failure began. What caused this limiting belief in your life? How true or valid is this belief? If there is a certain failure that you fear, spend some time with that failure. Imagine that the failure occurred. What is the absolute worst-case scenario if you failed? Imagine all the things that could go wrong if you did fail. Write them down and come up with a list. Once you’ve defined your absolute worst-case scenario, go back and look at your list. What is the likelihood that all of the horrible things you listed would actually happen? What can you do to mitigate them from happening? What is your backup plan? Knowing that you’ve thought through the different scenarios can help you stay positive and move forward.
- Don’t let failure stop you from living the life you want and going after your dreams. What would you do differently if you knew you couldn’t fail?
When you can see the gifts that come when you try something and it doesn’t work out, you can continue to grow, evolve and live your purpose. Don’t let failure hold you back!