Monday, July 13, 2015

The Wise Use of Failure

One of the greatest fears anyone has in life is the fear of failure. It’s true. Failure for some people is the very worst thing that could ever happen. Some people are simply paralyzed by the fear of failing, imaging what terrible consequences will result in a failure – public humiliation, eternal shame, smokelightningfire – real end of the world stuff.

 It makes sense to be afraid of failure. It feels terrible. It sometimes has undesirable consequences. Sometimes failure means life is no longer going in that direction. Failure might even mean the end of that important relationship or living here anymore. It can get pretty bad.

But if your relationship with failure is all bad, then you’re missing out on the benefits of failure. Benefits? Of failure? Yes, the benefits of failure. We don’t like to fail and we fear failure because we think it is all bad, but we determine it is all bad because it feels so bad.

While failure feels bad, it is not all bad. There is a baby somewhere in that bathwater, so don’t throw it out. When wisdom is applied to failure, some interesting things happen. In the movie Elizabethtown, (one of my all-time favorite movies) Drew tries to explain to Claire why his failure is so huge that it is impossible to get out from under. He is committed to failure being all bad. Claire has a different relationship with failure. Her relationship with failure is that it is linked to true greatness.

Claire: So, you failed.
Drew: No, you don't get it.

Claire: All right, you really failed. You failed, you failed, you failed. You failed, you failed, you... You think I care about that? I do understand. You're an artist, man. Your job is to break through barriers. Not accept blame and bow and say: "Thank you, I'm a loser, I'll go away now."  You want to be really great? Then have the courage to fail big and stick around. Make them wonder why you're still smiling. That’s true greatness to me.

What Claire knows that she tries to help Drew understand is that when wisdom is applied to failure, there is no greater source of learning, growth, and ultimate greatness. There is a greatness known only to those who have failed that cannot be known by those who have never failed.

 But how do I get at that greatness? What is the wise use of failure?

·        Learn: Ask failure what it is so generously trying to teach you. And don’t be simply satisfied with “well, I’ll never do that again.” Go deeper. Find out how to do better knowing that each failure is something to stand on top of in order to get a better look at things. Some people call this “failing forward.”

·         Look within. Search your character. What kind of person did this failure expose you as being? What are your areas of weakness, blind spots, and gaps that need attention? Then strategize how to fill these in.

·         Look within again. Search your character for what you did right, how you maintained yourself in the context of failure, how you succeeded within the failure. Nothing was completely a failure. Then strategize how to highlight these strengths.

 The only thing worse than failure is to fail to find its hidden wisdom. Mine your failures for wisdom, understanding, and insight. You will never regret it.

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