Have you ever felt like you miserably failed? Failed matric, or failed a goal, or sticking to a specific plan? Here’s a secret: you never fail. Find out why.
Have you ever failed at something, or didn’t achieve what you wanted, or what was expected of you? Of course, you have. We all have. It’s one of the most human experiences we can have. Does a toddler manage to strut a walk after only one attempt? Think about how often you had to practice tying your shoelaces, or lighting a match, or holding a pen. Needless to say, it took a few fails first before you got it right, or explored other solutions.
You never fail – when you consider failing as something valuable.
Defining What it Means to Fail
As the term failure stands in the dictionary, it simply signifies the idea and experience of not succeeding at something, or not achieving what was meant to be achieved. Sure, why not have a term to express the concept of not succeeding? If you think about it, the term ‘failure’ or ‘to fail’ is no big deal really. It’s just one part of the human experience. Like humour, or curiosity, or love.
Basically, you can imagine the simple meaning of failure to look like those incidents we often see in funny fail compilations on Youtube.
Alright, so failure just means ‘not to succeed?’
If only it were that simple.
Failure in Society
Unfortunately, the social and cultural implications the term has come to represent are a massive deal. If you fail, not only have you not succeeded, but you are also made to feel worthless, incapable, and ashamed. If you are ‘a failure’ then you’re pretty much scum – at least that is what Western society tells us.
Whoever the loony was that first birthed the idea of seeing failure as the most unacceptable and shameful outcome has caused a lot of people, myself included, many moments of unnecessary agony and self-destructive feelings.
Well, step aside, Looney, because I’m about to set the record straight here.
Putting Myself into Perspective
In terms of understanding what it means to fail or succeed, I grew up with two extremes: My father, a world-renowned, very successful lung specialist whose motto in life was, “Only the best is good enough,” and my mother, whose motto is, “Always do your best.” Though both mottos had always come with the best of intentions, do you see the enormous difference?
On the one hand, I was taught that failure was simply not an option; on the other hand I was taught that it didn’t matter if I failed – what mattered was that I did my very best. So as you can imagine, it hasn’t been easy to figure out my own opinion on the philosophy of failure and success. I’ll get to that in a bit.
A few months ago I spoke to my mother about my future and told her about some ideas I have. I told her about certain things I was drawn to.
“I would like to give it a try, even if it fails.”
As a response, she drops this on me:
“What does ‘fail’ mean??? There is NO failure. If things don’t work your way, it only means you should try something else. Delete failure now and forever from your vocabulary and mind please.”
That conversation really got me thinking about failure, and what it meant to me. And the more I thought about it, the more I realised that I don’t want to see failure as shameful anymore.
Reclaiming the Term
Let’s abandon society’s emotionally abusive definition of failure for a second, and look at another way to consider it. What if we saw failure as a necessary learning curve?
Henry Ford, the founder of Ford Motor Company, considered failure to be an opportunity.
“Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.”
When we fail, we learn something. And sometimes the lessons we learn are far more valuable than any goal we might have achieved.
For example, if you have a big exam coming up, and you decide not to study for it… you could end up failing that exam, right? If that happens, you will get the opportunity to do it differently the next time. I’m not saying everyone seizes each of these opportunities – no, no. Many of us make the same mistake multiple times before we learn our lesson. But that’s not the point.
The point is, when you fail, it’s not about the actual failure, but rather about what you learn from it, and how you deal with it.
Fail your Way to Amazing Things is a talk by best-selling author and international speaker Ekaterina Walter. It highlights the fact that each of us needs to define what failure means to us, and more importantly, that failure does not define who you are.
You Can’t Succeed Without Failure
Failing sucks. You feel like the universe is against you, and beat yourself up, and for a while, the only thing that seems to help is rocking back and forth in foetal position. But what I am saying is that failure is not the end of the road – it’s a speed bump. It slows you down and makes you re-shift your gears, to accelerate anew.
Of course, I am not trying to tell you that you need to pop a bottle of Champagne when you fail your degree, or when your business crumbles, or when you gain 4 kilos on a new diet. But by learning from our failures and using those precious lessons, we can become more successful than we ever thought before.
Don’t believe me? Well, some of the most successful people in our history and current time know that this is true.
“I have not failed. I’ve just found 1000 ways that won’t work.”
Thomas A. Edison, inventor of many devices we still use today, including the electrical light bulb, which took him 1000 attempts to get right.
“Failure is a word unknown to me.”
Mohammad Ali Jinnah, heavyweight boxing legend.
“Do not judge me by my successes. Judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up.”
Nelson Mandela, our late national hero who became the president of South Africa after spending a quarter of a century in prison.
“If you’re not failing every now and again, it’s a sign you’re not doing anything very innovative.”
Woody Allen, Oscar-winning screenwriter and film director.
Ashton Kutcher knows this too. Here is his awesome motivational speech at the 2014 Teen Choice Awards.
Be the Best You Can Be
If you participate in a race, and you run as fast as you possibly, physically can, but you don’t come first – does this make you a failure? Of course not. You gave it your best – and so did the winner, and their best happened to be a bit faster than yours.
I have come to understand failure as a combination of the two mottos my parents preached. I agree with my father that we all ought to aim to be the best. However, unlike his motto implies, I disagree that the ultimate goal is to be the best in class, or the country, or the world… but rather, simply the best we can be as ourselves, which is what my mother has taught me from the day I was born. The most important thing is to reach your own potential – by following your passion and satisfying the hunger within you to be the best version of yourself.
Competition is good – it can bring outdrive and motivation, but the only real person you should be competing with is the person you were yesterday. If you can be better, bigger, wiser, more successful than you were yesterday, or even a minute ago, then that is what you should aim to achieve. Look to others for inspiration, lessons, advice… and then apply those things to be the best version of yourself.
Aim to reach your own full potential. Being class best, or a world champion is not the ultimate goal. Rather, it symbolises that you have succeeded in being the best you.
If you give your absolute best, then you cannot fail. Only succeed, or learn.
Feeling like a failure puts negative thoughts in our heads and distracts us from getting back up and trying again, or trying something new. In my opinion, there is no such thing as shameful failure if it can teach us a lesson and make us grow as people. If you fail, learn from it, and do it better next time.
You never fail – if you don’t succeed, you learn.
We often feel a lot of pressure to perform well in order to reach the expectations of others. In many cases, we want to succeed in order to have approval and acknowledgement from our parents. Though pressure can be good, it’s important to realise that, at the end of the day, we need to achieve and succeed for ourselves.