You always pass failure on your way to success. ~Mickey Rooney
Who among us hasn’t dealt with failure? No one, that’s who.
We’ve all felt the sting of losing or not accomplishing a goal that we set for ourselves. Sure, we also enjoy successes, but the road to achievement is often filled with more failed attempts than successful ones.
I got to thinking about this while contemplating my new year resolutions. I always start off with great enthusiasm only to feel it waning a couple of months in. Why do I lose that initial fervor so quickly?
I’m inclined to think it’s because of my attitude about failure; I’ve always viewed it as a bad thing. After all, it IS the opposite of success. I also view anything less than reaching one’s goals as a failure. Therefore, if I don’t post regularly on my blog, then I’ve failed at writing. If I don’t avoid sweets then I’ve failed at eating healthier. And if I fail then I may as well give up, right?
Not everyone sees failure as a negative. During her June 2008 commencement speech at Harvard, J.K. Rowling talks about the “fringe benefits” of failure. In this insightful TED Talk she describes hitting the lowest point in her life and career:
“Rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.”
Rowling points out that we all decide for ourselves what constitutes failure. Some people see falling short of a goal as ultimate defeat, while others view it as a challenge to be overcome.
Because failure feels so lousy it’s a great teacher. When things come easily we often don’t have much invested, be it time, energy, or hard work. Failure may involve humiliation, rejection, or some other painful emotion, but one thing is certain: we don’t forget. Any lessons learned from the experience are scorched in our memory. Failure then becomes an effective means of learning.
There’s a lot of advice about how to turn failure into success. I boiled them down to what I believe are the basic three steps:
#1 – Acknowledge your humanity
No one is perfect or leads perfect lives.
Sometimes we forget this. Our society and media bombard us daily with news and views of athletes, entertainers, models, overnight millionaires, etc. that appear to be somewhat super-human. When we compare ourselves with them, it’s easy to feel like a mere mortal. Unless we read the back story of these folks we may never hear of their own struggles with failure.
Unrealistic expectations set us up to fail, which is why it’s so important to set achievable goals. No one’s perfect and it might require many attempts. This is where self-compassion comes in. Just as we graciously encourage our children and others to keep trying, we must do it for ourselves. If at first, you don’t succeed, try, try again.
#2 – Don’t view failure as a negative
View it as an “uncomfortable” opportunity.
No, failure doesn’t feel good, but it has value. It’s like going to the gym and working your ass off; sweating, being short of breath, smelling bad. Getting in shape isn’t much fun, but being in shape feels awesome. Failure becomes an unlikely means to an end that teaches important lessons about strength and endurance.
#3 Set realistic goals
A small success is better than no success.
Rather than trying to lose 25 lbs. make it 10. Instead of exercising an hour each day, do 30 minutes. As each goal is reached you’ll feel empowered to raise the bar.
And if you fall victim to cheesecake or life prevents your session at the gym, get back on the wagon asap. Losing a day or two doesn’t mean defeat; it’s a temporary delay towards a permanent goal.
I’m reminded of the popular children’s book The Little Engine That Could.
I bought it for my son before he started preschool and loved reading it to him. My hope was that it would teach the importance of hard work, belief in yourself, and not giving up.
Many years later, after applying to various law schools, he called to tell me that he had been accepted to the University of Virginia, one of his “top tier” choices and ranked in the top ten schools in the country.
“I’ve realized my dream,” he said, his voice a bit shaky. My first thought was one of disbelief, then amazement and pride.
My second thought was of this book that I had read so often while he and his siblings were growing up. Without the benefit of being a minority student, legacy admission, or wealthy donor, he was accepted completely on his own merits.
The lesson of “I think I can” served him well.
I believe failure is a stepping-stone to the best kind of success; the kind that’s earned.
Unlike the benefits of money and position that are merely handed over from one person to another, climbing the ladder of success has its own benefits.
And slipping on a rung or two on the way up is one of them.