Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.
– Winston Churchill
Most of us have heard the saying, “Failure is NOT an option.” It seems to fit well with some kind of spy story, where the character is warned of the dire consequences of not completing their mission. The saying has seeped into our popular culture, and for many it becomes a kind of mantra or goal.
This sounds like a worthy goal on the surface, and there are some cases where it’s true (high-stakes things like space missions or cloak-and-dagger spy work come to mind). There’s a problem though, particularly for those of us that tend to be more perfectionist. For many perfectionists, failure can tend to mean, “Anything that doesn’t live up to my (often impossibly high) standards.”
Case in point: I started this blog at the end of 2018. As is my nature, instead of just jumping in as soon as I had the idea, I did a few weeks of mulling as well as a lot of reading online about how to create a successful blog. Most articles suggested that to be “successful,” a blogger would need to write a new post at least once per week, at a minimum. I decided that seemed like too much, and thought two weeks should be plenty of time as well as providing the regularity needed for a following. After my first post, I sort of panicked. Unused to sharing so candidly, and not sure what I had gotten myself into, I became afraid of what would happen with the blog and more or less forgot everything I had planned to talk about.
A couple weeks later, I felt pressured to create another post but my heart wasn’t in it. I forced myself to write again, and though it wasn’t bad I wasn’t terribly happy with it either. I realized that I had lost sight of my original goal for creating the blog, which was simply to share some thoughts I had in hopes of helping me grow and encouraging others that may have similar growing pains. (The irony of becoming afraid of the blog and being vulnerable is quite ironic, if you remember my first post, ha!) After that second post I felt like my blog had failed, because not only did I create something I wasn’t happy about, but I had already lost sight of my original goal. For the next few months I didn’t write at all.
And yet, here I am again. I made the choice to write some more, because I felt like I had something I wanted to say, and not because I was forced to by some arbitrary measure of success. Whether that can be counted as a failure is debatable, but I have certainly failed in other areas of my life since then. The difference, as I have begun to learn, is that failure need not be fatal or final. I thought I had failed my blog because it wasn’t perfect and I wasn’t writing constantly. More recently, I got myself over-involved in several stressful and time-consuming commitments at the same time. I knew going in that it could cause problems, and it did. My performance in each of those commitments ended up being less than it could have been had I focused on one at a time, instead of all at once.
I learned that I have limits. I also learned something even more important: I did it all anyway. At many points throughout the process, I kept trying to find excuses to quit one or more commitments, because I was convinced I would be unable to do it all. Instead, I stuck with everything, and guess what? I not only finished it all, but better than I expected. Was it perfect? Certainly not. Was it wise? Probably not. The lessons learned, however, were incredibly valuable. (That’s not exactly failure territory, although to a perfectionist it can feel that way.)
There’s so much out there written about failure, and perseverance, and such things that I decided to take a different (and more personal) perspective. I’m not a psychologist but psychology fascinates me, and I have a theory about why I tend to avoid risks that I might perceive as “failure.” I know that every person’s experiences and thoughts are unique, but I believe we also have more in common when it comes to our basic fears and desires than we tend to think. So, even though this is deconstructing my own thought process, I suspect it may have a lot in common with other people’s experiences as well. Hopefully this is helpful to someone else out there.
I have a theory that sometimes failure itself is actually less frightening than what could actually happen as a result of the “failure.” It’s the unknown fear about how we may react to the failure. Put another way, we’re afraid what we may learn about ourselves if we dare to try and then fail.
For example, take an athlete who is considering running a very competitive race. As long as running the race is theoretical rather than concrete, the future is relatively unknown and could be good (perceived as success, or winning the race) or bad (perceived as losing the race, or perhaps not meeting one’s own expectations for performance). For some people, it’s more comforting to remain in the fantasy of not knowing the outcome, rather than risking the bad outcome. It’s easier to tell yourself that “you could run the race if you really wanted, but you don’t feel terribly inclined to try,” rather than to run the race and face the very real possibility of losing the race and having to deal with the psychological consequences. If you tend to be sure of yourself, this isn’t much of a problem; you know that whether you succeed or not, you are the better for having tried. Plus, dreaming can be beneficial but never makes things happen without taking action. On the other hand, someone who may be more cautious or is still growing in confidence in themselves realizes that if they risk and fail, they will have to wrestle with the thoughts of potential inadequacy. Why risk coming face-to-face with your own shortcomings when you could instead tell yourself, “I could be a great runner, but I don’t feel like it.” You get to keep holding onto your fantasy of winning the race without facing your own weakness. Maybe you even think that if you fail, it will just “prove” to you your own negative self-talk.
This kind of thinking actually makes a lot of sense in our own subconscious, but when it’s taken out into the light and examined, it makes a lot less sense. There are lots of problems with it, but I’ll mention two in particular for now.
Firstly, in a logical sense, even if you have a dream of incredible proportions, of accomplishing amazing things, if you don’t do anything with it, it remains completely detached from reality. Harsh as it sounds, without any action you’re doing nothing more than living in a fake world. It would be like someone buying a full set of gym equipment to keep in their home, and assuming that just having these items around will make them magically fit. It may soothe that person’s conscience, but it does nothing to change reality. If you do the same things you have always done, chances are very good that things will remain the way they have always been.
The second issue actually gives us an excuse to look at things in a more positive light. This is where it gets exciting! It’s true that if you try something and fail, you might learn something about yourself that you would rather not know. But, if you look at the flip side, I think it is just as likely that you may learn something surprising and positive about yourself from how you deal with failure. You might learn that you had unrealistic expectations, but you learned something about what you are capable of by at least trying. You now have a clearer view of reality. Even better, you might learn that although you failed THIS TIME, you may surprise yourself with how you learn from the situation, pick yourself up, and try again, this time with better knowledge. Maybe next time you’ll get farther before failing, and learn something new again. You might learn that even though you failed, life didn’t end. You may even have to deal with consequences, but you can still move forward.
Or, maybe you won’t actually fail at all! Maybe you will succeed and prove yourself (and your fears) wrong!
Consider the possible outcomes you have from trying something that risks failure. You could succeed, beyond your wildest dreams, and surprise yourself and others. You could succeed, and accomplish your goal, allowing you to set a new goal. You could just scrape by, and learn that even if it’s not perfect, having something done is better than never having tried. You could just barely fail, and learn what you might need to do next time to succeed. You could fail spectacularly. Even in this case, though, you will learn that you can still try again, with new knowledge, or you can decide to focus your energy on a new goal. You can learn how you deal with adversity, and that is a very valuable thing to know about oneself. You may discover a reserve of perseverance and character that you never would have found otherwise. If nothing else, you may discover that there are people around you who love you and support you, whether you have succeeded or not.
Maybe you’re thinking about your life now, what you have avoided doing because you’re afraid of failure, or maybe you’re afraid of what you may learn about yourself if you do fail. Maybe it’s stopping you from changing something in your life, whether it be big or small. (Naturally, I’m not encouraging you to do something completely unwise. Use common sense, but don’t be afraid to risk a bit of failure.) I challenge you to have the courage to examine your own avoidance. Is it because you truly believe not taking a risk is the wisest thing to do right now, or is it because you’ve let your own fears hijack your life? (If you’re not sure, talking with some friends that you trust, particularly those with more life experience who know you well, can be a great way to get some outside input.) You can start with small things, and use the confidence gained there to work up to bigger things. It’s a process, and certainly one in which I am no expert (just traveling along it myself). Let me know any thoughts you have down below. Thanks for reading!
You build on failure. You use it as a stepping stone. Close the door on the past. You don’t try to forget the mistakes, but you don’t dwell on it. You don’t let it have any of your energy, or any of your time, or any of your space.
– Johnny Cash