Failure has been given a bad wrap in our society.
As if the very notion of it were detrimental to our wellbeing and should be avoided at all costs.
There exists a certain stigma around failure. That those who have failed are seen as lesser. That they’re incapable, weak and doomed to remain that way.
The biggest driver of my High School education was fear of failure. I was taught to believe that failing a test or subject would send me down the path of an unfulfilled, struggle-to-get-by kind of life. My thoughts at the time were that failing was fundamentally bad and would leave a blemish on my abilities that would remain with me.
And so my efforts were poured into avoiding it at all costs.
It led me to tirelessly study my subjects in preparation for my final assessments. To perfect solving mathematical equations, to put to memory an insane amount of scientific facts and to wrote learn essay segments in advance.
It taught me to remain within the safe confines of the system I knew so well.
In class I paid attention. I dutifully copied notes and put them to memory. Rarely did I challenge teachers for fear of being wrong in front of my classmates. I trained myself to never put a foot out of line, lest those who’s approval I sought be disappointed.
And you know what?
I studied diligently for 12 months straight and aced my final exams.
My results were stellar and set me up for a promising (well paid) scholarship while I studied engineering.
It was great, for a while. I had a healthy regular income and my strong work ethic from school positioned me well for university. I soon understood how the system worked and found the sweet spot of effort in, results out. I was content to remain on cruise control, floating down the river of progress I found myself on.
But soon my mind began to wander. To venture outside the orderly system that I knew so well.
During my later teenage years I developed a strong interest in music. And although I had never learnt a musical instrument as a child, learning to play guitar interested me. I borrowed one from the family and began teaching myself through free YouTube tutorials.
I began reading more non-fiction articles. I found myself watching online talks showcasing influential speakers who eloquently made their case on a wide-range of topics, one being Behavioural Economics. I was fascinated by the field and its application. So much so that it led me to un-enroll in my degree and change to a Psychology major to pursue a career in the field.
The natural beauty of landscape photography captivated me and saw me move from the point and shoot world of an iPhone to the (seemingly) complex world of a DSLR. It sparked an interest where I thought I could make money from my art. I hired a table at my local markets and promoted my work on Facebook.
And you know what?
I followed my interests, gave them my best shot, and to date I’ve failed at every one.
I’m not a touring musician. I’m not working in the field of Behavioural Economics. And I’m far from a professional landscape photographer.
And you know what?
That’s okay. I’ve failed, many times, and I’m actually okay.
I’ll be honest, that moment of realisation where things didn’t work out as you planned can be tough. It can be extremely tough. It can get you down and that’s normal.
But from where I am now, I’m fine.
In fact, because of my failures, I’m more than fine.
Those failures allowed me to carve out my own path in life. To expand my personal horizons beyond the safe harbour of the known.
I’ve found that it’s important to have the confidence to back yourself into the unknown. But, even more vitally, to then embrace failure when (and not if) it arises. The crucial thing is to not view it as a soiled mark against your ability, but rather as a chance to learn from the experience. To accept it as a gift of wisdom from your current self to your future self.
Shit happens. Period.
We’re human and we stumble. We’re susceptible to imperfections, miscalculations and unfortunate circumstances. And sometimes we need to take a step back and remember that.
We stumble at times. All of us do. Every single one of us has made mistakes and errors. The next time we find ourselves being judgmental of failure (be it our own or that of those around us), it’s worth remembering that. It’s comforting in a sense that we’re all imperfect together.
I could end the post there. But I won’t, because failure is such an immensely valuable tool to better your future self — if you pay attention.
The thing to look for is feedback in failure. It may be difficult in the moment, to look beyond the emotional shortcomings. But if you can, it is entirely worth it.
It’s about accepting the current circumstances for what they are, and then proactively scanning the environment for feedback. Searching for all forms of feedback that will reduce the likelihood of the same failure occurring again tomorrow.
Take something as simple as playing the wrong note on guitar. Stop to consider the cause of the error. Was the sound too dull where the string needed to be pressed more firmly. Or was the note out of time and perhaps a metronome could be of assistance.
The same thought process can also be applied, maybe even more so, to better your line of work too.
Something I’ve always struggled with to some degree has been public speaking. In a recent meeting we were presenting to a potential new client, highlighting what we could do for their business. I again struggled through my part and found myself too often reading straight from the slides and rushing through the content too quickly.
But after the meeting I sought out my colleague who kindly advised me that a more casual approach might work better. One where I’m not reading the slides verbatim, and instead focusing on the key messages. The approach requires me to spend more time beforehand to get a better grip on the content and less time bumbling my way through each slide.
The issue of timing was another one too. Too often I found myself rushing — perhaps in the hope that quantity might make up for the lack in quality. However after watching eloquent speakers deliver their talks, I noticed that they regularly pause, often for extended periods. Allowing them to more cohesively collect their thoughts. And because the value in their words lifts significantly, the audience eagerly awaits what else they have to offer.
And while these examples may be specific to me, the principle holds universal. Rather than fear it, I urge you use failure to your advantage.
Which leads me to the final point I want to make. The willingness to try new experiences and to learn from them is vital to our creativity.
A wise man once said that creativity is all about connecting the dots. If you haven’t lived a wide-reaching life, then your pool of dots is bound to be shallower. The willingness to fail encourages you act outside of your comfort zone and adds to your collective pool of dots.
Failure isn’t some entity that we should live in constant fear of. It’s actually good for us. In fact, it’s often our best teacher.
Remember that time you fell trying to walk as a toddler? Remember that you tried to drive manual but stalled at the lights? Remember that first day on the new job and felt guilty for having absolutely no idea?
We need to erase the notion that as adults we are perfectly functioning beings. That anything below a 100% success rate is seen as weak.
We’re all still learning. And it’s the act of failing today that makes us better tomorrow.