Defining “failure” is an individual choice we all have. It can define us or we learn from it.
Webster’s Dictionary defines “failure” as “ failing to perform a duty or expected action.” Or “ lack of success”, and finally “a falling short: a deficiency”. Is it a failure if we are trying to do something we don’t enjoy? Or if we are experimenting and we do not reach our original goal? Would Albert Einstein or Thomas Edison see themselves as a failure? Or would they see their experiments as falling short of their end goal which they would one day meet? Their success was made up of many “failed” experiments that led up to their final success.
How We Experience Failure Is Completely Up To Us
Some might see it as a sign of something terribly wrong with them, or it could be an important lesson they learn along the way towards success. It totally depends upon our thinking. How we think about something is almost always going to determine how we feel. For example, those who believe that seeking psychotherapy with a professional means you are weak will often see those who do seek professional help as broken or less capable. Others who seek professional assistance may view themselves as strong, and open to having new experiences. Those individuals may understand that failure does not define them and that they want to learn and improve their lives.
One view limits our experiences and personal growth, where the second view can open doors to new experiences and can allow for our personal growth and new ventures. Our beliefs determine how we experience things in life, and the degree to which those experiences define us. That’s where our belief about failure directly impacts how we experience the unknown, as well as the limitations we place upon ourselves in determining our choices in life.
Let’s take a look at how we view success and failure in terms of choosing a career. If we are sensitive to cultural expectations, then we may follow what our culture values, even if it is not what makes us happy or interests us. When we follow something that is not in our heart we may not be as motivated to succeed. Or we may not have the skill set required to succeed. Does this mean we have failed? Or is this an opportunity to learn that we are more likely to succeed when we are happy in our career, regardless of what others may think.
What Impacts How We View Failure?
- Family beliefs: Some families are so invested in how their children’s lives will be as adults that they inadvertently put pressure on their children to go into fields that may represent status or security. This often does not consider what the adult child would be interested in pursuing, or if they have the propensity for that field.
- Our own internal measurements of defining our worth: Some people have their own ideas of what success is: wealth or status are just two examples. They may not be considering what their passion or strengths are. Instead, they may focus on what will give them status or financial security.
- One’s culture: Some cultures emphasize certain highly respected fields for their children, with the expectation that their choice will not be challenged by the adult child. Again, the degree of success the adult child may experience may have nothing to do with a passion or a propensity for the chosen field. In some cultures, “failure” for any reason is unacceptable. This can cause an unimaginable degree of pressure. So, is it really a failure when one is pressured to enter a field they are either not interested in, or not academically inclined to manage?
- Do we view our results as a failure or delayed success? For example, you take the bar exam to practice law. If you fail the bar exam does it mean you will make a terrible lawyer? Or does it mean you are not good at exams? Or could it mean now that you aware of what is on the exam you can be more prepared to study with knowledge of your challenging areas? I have not heard of
many if any person who did not attempt the bar exam at least twice if necessary. And many people took it several times before passing. And most of these people would go on to practice law the rest of their life.
- The life experiences that we allow to define our worth: If a child was often shamed at not being able to do something well as a child, they are likely to carry that shame with them into adulthood. How could this not affect them as they face adult challenges? Kids teased for being different in school often carry this stigma with them into adulthood. This can easily affect their sense of worth, which can then later affect their ability to thrive in a career. Is this failure? I don’t think so.
Famous People’s View of “Failure”
If I haven’t yet convinced you to take another look at your definition of true failure, see how these well-known people view the concept of “failure”:
Thomas Edison: “I have not failed. I’ve found 10,000 ways something won’t work”… “I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.”
Albert Einstein: “You never fail until you stop trying”. I take this to also mean that trying to find something that truly challenges, moves or fulfills you would also hold true in this quote because you might be interested and motivated to pursue it.
He also said, “Failure is success in progress”. Again, it shows that how we experience a failure depends upon how we define it ourselves.
Changing Our Mind in Terms of How We View Failure
Now we get to the “how to” of experiencing “failure”: Here is what Susan Tardanico, who writes for Forbes has to say about experiencing failure (see link):
- Don’t make it personal. Even if you fail at something it does not define you. Take stock, learn and adapt. What didn’t work? What could you do differently? Try to avoid anger, regret, blame, etc. This won’t be productive in any positive way. And don’t dwell on it or how you feel. Get out of the process what you can learn for future use, and let the rest go.
- Take stock, learn and adapt. Instead of focusing on it personally, and with judgment, look at it with curiosity. What can I learn from this? What would have worked better? Could there have been a better outcome? Stay away from negative emotions, such as anger, blame, etc. Just as you read the famous quote from Thomas Edison, you can see that he changed his perspective to be analytical rather than taking it personally.
- Don’t dwell on the negative experience. Don Shula, a famous NFL coach who has won two Super Bowl games allows himself and his team players 24 hours to look at and analyze what went wrong and to feel all of the emotions that are there. Then learn from it, and move on.
- Release the need for approval of others. Other people do not define you. Only you can truly define you. This is your life, not theirs. Susan further goes on to say “ Stephen King’s first book, Carrie, was rejected by 30 publishers. Walt Disney was fired from his newspaper job because he “lacked imagination and good ideas.” Winston Churchill failed sixth grade and was considered ‘a dolt’ by his teacher. Jerry Seinfeld was booed off the stage the first time he tried comedy.”
- Try a different point of view. Stay away from negative beliefs, such as “I am a failure”. I will never be successful.” Reframe your thoughts into more positive, healthy statements, such as “If I fail, I am one step closer to succeeding”. Or look at all the things you actually gained or learned from the experience.
Here is what Susan quotes from Michael Jordan: “I have missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I have lost almost 300 games. On 26 occasions I have been entrusted to take the game-winning shot, and I missed. I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
Remember, what we think affects how we feel, whether we are conscious of it or not. What good will it do to beat yourself up over something that didn’t work for you? Try to see the humanness in yourself and move forward towards what works better for you. That is a true success! And it is in your control. It’s your decision to make!