Whilst writing this is aimed at setting failure in its proper context, from a relatively neutral perspective, it will inevitably draw on my own experience and view, in addition to those opinions of others that I happen to find useful. There will also be some accounts of success stemming from failure, which are most certainly presented according to my own understanding. With that in mind, let’s establish some ground rules. First and foremost, failure isn’t bad. Labelling failure as bad is something the vast majority of us were taught as kids, and have had constantly reinforced throughout our school, college and work lives, and is further compounded by our social circle. If you were really unfortunate, this would have been the prevailing mindset of your parent(s), and is therefore more deeply ingrained than you might realise. Secondly, failure is temporary. Any failure which doesn’t result in death is short term, maybe even fleeting. There’s an argument that even fatal failure is temporary, but that’s a philosophical debate beyond the scope of this article! We’re conditioned to believe from an early age that failure is permanent, and success temporary; albeit not phrased as such. You can have all the success you like, but fail once and it’s all you’re known and remembered for. This again, is untrue. Finally failure isn’t absolute, and may even be necessary.
Failure isn’t bad: Now I get that this is counter intuitive, or at least appears so, but bear with me. Fai
lure provides us an opportunity to learn and improve, that success wouldn’t have presented us. Context is irrelevant here, but allow me to use a scenario to illustrate my point. If you fail your driving test, you know you need to take a few more lessons, practise certain maneuvers a little more carefully, and maybe better prepare yourself for the next attempt. Say though, that you only failed by one minor fault. Now imagine that the examiner wasn’t concentrating, missed that minor fault, and issued a pass. This might sound great; a short term win, saving you money, and granting you access to the roads, unsupervised, immediately, rather than having to wait. Fast forward a couple of months, and the person who failed the test, in the version of this scenario where the examiner was fully focused, and they pass their retest, with a few more practise hours under their belt, and they’re on the road. That person is now better trained and equipped to deal with a variety of parking, driving and car maintenance scenarios. They’re less likely to crash, and doubtless have a better ability to parallel park, reverse park, or turn in the road. Take whichever movement the first time pass student slipped up on, without the examiner noticing, and this is a movement they’ll continue to struggle with, and will probably end up causing or being involved in an accident or incident as a result. The failure was a clear opportunity to learn and improve. In this scenario, it’s forced. Assuming the driver wants to obtain a full license, they have no choice but to not only take on board the points for improvement given by the examiner, but to demonstrate that she’s addressed them. Now apply this to the gym; you deadlift a new record of 200kg. Your form is awful, your back is rounded, but you make the lift. You’re sore and tender for a couple of days, but you put that down to your monumental display of strength, and return to training a couple of days later, with no injuries or ill effects. Switch the outcome now, so that something in the lumbar shifts a couple of millimetres during the lift, it feels wrong, and you ditch the lift a few centimetres short of locking out. You failed the weight. You’ll most likely ask someone who was watching, possibly the coach, “what went wrong”, to which you’ll get an answer of something like “you let the bar get out front”, or “your back started rounding after the weight left the floor”, or whatever fault happened to be present. You’re now going to be a little nervous before deadlifting again, but most likely you’re going to focus on correcting that issue that came close to injuring you. You’re going to focus on tightening your mid-section and maintaining a neutral spine. It’ll take a while, but that will pay off, and allow you to not only make the lift next time, but to progress safely beyond it, to new levels. Now go back to the person who made the lift; they learned nothing, and will attempt a heavier lift next time out. There’s only so far their body will allow them to go without correcting errors, before something breaks. They won’t be conscious of this, because they didn’t fail. In this scenario, failure raises consciousness and awareness. It’s most certainly a good thing, not bad!
Failure is temporary: Whilst others might judge you by your failures, it’s important not to see yourself this way. As I’ve hopefully highlighted above, failures can actually be the reason for later success. There are countless examples of people like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Walt Disney failing time and time again, before elevating themselves to such a status I don’t need to explain their achievements. What’s often left out of these stories, when they’re retold by delinquent adolescents trying to justify their teenage decisions to their parents, is the work that these people tirelessly performed, without a moment’s pause to even realise that society at large would see them as failing. Dropping out of university to lead a technical revolution that would change the way our world communicates and does business, is a little different to quitting your part time job because you don’t like early mornings to then pursue a career selling supplements on Instagram! The point at the heart of all of these stories, is none of these people stopped to dwell on what went wrong, they just continually, tirelessly and to the best of their ability, pursued their goals. They were single minded, and dedicated to their own causes. These success stories can be found in their droves online, yet, from my reading, all have this common theme. What seems to make failure permanent, is accepting it, and giving up. By ceasing the pursuit of your goal, you are in fact creating the failure that you’ll later lament at meetings of downtrodden could-have-beens in the local pub.
Failure isn’t absolute: It’s often thought that failure is the end of trying, despite the most obvious evidence to the contrary. We frequently drop things, then pick them back up. We frequently click a remote button, or speak to a smart speaker, only to have to do so again, and maybe again, as the first attempt was unsuccessful. We just accept these failures as part of the journey to success, yet we can’t apply the same logic to bigger, longer, more complex journeys that we might be on. What if your remote has a button fault that means the first button depression never works, it just puts the mechanism in the correct position for the second press to be successful? In this scenario, the first press is a failure, but absolutely essential to create success. Now what if you quit after one press? Having achieved the first NECESSARY part of success, you gave up, because you didn’t instantly get the result you wanted. It sounds so obvious when worded in such a discrete, pre-determined and black and white fashion, and this example is far removed from gym based scenarios, or larger life goals you might be in pursuit of, but the principles stand true. Not only then is failure not final, it might actually be necessary for success.
So how can we make failure a more acceptable process in our minds? Hopefully the words above go some way to helping you reframe the concept of failure in your mind, but fear not, there are many more tools. Rather than drone on for line after line of text, with the odd nugget of value tucked away, I’ve written out my suggestions as bullet points which hopefully you’ll find actionable and easily memorised:
Plan for failure - don’t make it your only plan, but consider it a real possibility and know what you’ll do should it happen.
Practise failure - mainly for physical things, skills and the like. Practise how to ditch a barbell for example.
Rehearse failure scenarios - the British Army are fantastic exemplars of this approach, frequently rehearsing what might go wrong, and how they’ll react, to the point that when things do go south, they default to their trained reactions, minimising the negative effects.
Change your internal dialogue - we’re all guilty of letting that voice inside our head control our actions and diminish our enjoyment of all life has to offer. Instead of listening to the voice say “what if it goes wrong, I’ll look so stupid” try “if it goes wrong, it will look like this, and I’ll react by doing that, and from that I’ll learn something good”.
Understand that your idea of failure and success is different from everyone else’s, even those closest to you!
Create an environment in which failure is allowed for others, be that friends and family, or colleagues - your acceptance of it in others, will help your acceptance of it in yourself!
Stop keeping score - nobody else is counting your mistakes (if they are, that’s on them, not you), and one success can eradicate and validate all prior failures in an instant.
In the words of Viktor E. Frankl, “Between stimulus and response is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.” Frankl wrote this of his experience as a Nazi POW, which to my mind adds to the profundity of the statement. Unpack it, and I believe he is saying that we may have an almost automatic negative response to a situation seemingly built in, but if we can fight our urge to respond in such a fashion, and just take a breath, and decide how we should respond, rather than how we want to, we are back in the driving seat, and this ultimately frees us from the shackles or our instincts. We can therefore choose the path that allows the best progress from any situation. Frame this against a failure that has just occurred. It’s in the past. It might be the immediate past, but it is still unchangeable. We have infinite paths along which we could proceed, but taking that pause and arresting our instinctive response, allows us to select how to proceed towards our desired ends. Often, true failure isn’t in an outcome, but in our reaction to it!