Failure is nature’s way of preparing you for success. And thank her for that, because life would be numbingly boring if you immediately succeeded at everything you tried.
Unfortunately this isn’t widely taught and so millions of us grow up imprisoned by a few bad outcomes, or worse failing at something important and not knowing until it’s too late.
Failure is more of a teacher than a judge
Our cultural narratives about failure has it serve improper roles; as a policeman pulling us over, a judge passing sentence and a prison guard confining us to a life sentence.
And it’s not.
If you engage with failure you’ll find she’s really a teacher that tells you what you need to learn, and a coach that helps you practice.
Though for failure to be a teacher and coach, you have to learn to see her in these roles rather than the ones handed down by society. You have to learn to look and listen for her guiding signals. And you have to heed them to succeed.
Sadly even when you intellectually get failure’s role as your success coach you may still not heed her counsel. Sometimes the impact is inconsequential, sometimes it’s crushing.
To illustrate consider
There are two types of failure
… and while both are sad, one is especially tragic.
1. Declared failure
We declare we’re a failure at something or that we are the failure. Our declarations don’t usually include the word ‘failure’ and sound more like “I’m not good at math/science/art/sales/with people etc., etc.”
We often give ourselves a life sentence of failure because of one poor result. Most of us aren’t good at math because of this.
Maybe it wasn’t one result, but we certainly didn’t look at each failure with an eye to getting better; more as evidence to our original conclusion that we’re a failure at math so better give up on it and one day, at our earliest opportunity, we did.
And from that moment on, we can no longer go where math would have taken us.
We did it with math, french, guitar, intimidating looking girls etc., etc. But in these cases we know we gave up, we told ourselves we wouldn’t even try anymore. We declared it.
As bad as that is, there’s another type of failure that’s even worse.
2. Undeclared failure
We think we’ll try again tomorrow; there’s still time in the game. We declare our commitment to success but don’t take any meaningful action to succeed. This happens a lot in relationships so I’ll start there to illustrate.
Often a father will say he’s trying to be a good father, but he’s missing birthdays, school recitals, gives up on time with his kid because of work etc., etc.
He feels bad when he disappoints his kid, but then the child smiles at the toy or candy he brings to make-up and daddy resolves to do better next time.
The ’70’s hit song Cat’s in the Cradle” is about this very phenomenon.
The father feels bad for an instant but then gets distracted with the real priorities in his life. He’s not learning from any of these bad outcomes (mini-failures) and he’s headed to ultimate failure as a father because his kid will grow up and he can never get those years back. He will have failed—not bad-outcome failed, ultimate-purpose failed.
The difference here is that he never consciously gave up on being a father like he did with math or piano lessons. He just ignored the feedback failure was sending; all the sad faces, disappointments, closed communication. He could have heeded them but he didn’t. He kept telling himself that he was still committed to being a good father, that there was still time in the game and he would do better next time.
We do this with our brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters. We do it with many of work relationships, and many of us are doing it with our health, education, entrepreneurial dreams, spiritual growth etc.
Why is undeclared failure so common?
Because the pain of ultimate failure—when we can no longer take corrective action to win—is too far into the future. It’s easier to put off the tough choices, and hard actions; plus any future bad outcome is so far distant that we think it doesn’t matter and it might not even happen.
This is why people smoke and eat fast food.
What can you do?
First acknowledge where you have an undeclared failure unfolding in your life. Who or what is it with?
A relative, friend, co-worker, spouse, ambition? All of the above?
That’s a major start. Think of how you will feel when the clock runs out, when your kid has grown up without you, your spouse leaves you, you get cancer, the day you realize you’ll never start your own business. Be an actor and live that scene of pain and disappointment, sadness and regret.
Use that to kick yourself in gear.
In a future post I’ll outline something simple you can do to help you not suffer from an undeclared failure.