Last Thursday I was visiting with a client in Indianapolis, a young business owner who founded his company in his 20s and has grown it to include 30 or so skilled staff and a geographic reach of several states. We were talking about failures and setbacks, and about the fact that neither of us knew – when we were children and when we were in our teens – that life would be filled with such trips, falls, setbacks, and, yes, “failures.” I put “failures” in quotes, not because a failure isn’t a failure, but because a failure is also a gift. It is, if we do the right things when we fail.
My client had just read Ten Thousand Horses, and he started the conversation by quoting a line from the book.
“Innovate! Try the untried. Do the thing that ‘can’t be done.’ The worst that’ll happen is you’ll stumble and fall. While you’re down there, why don’t you roll over onto your back and look up at the mind-boggling stars for a minute. Then get back up!” - Mike Wilson, Graduation Address 2006, High Summit Ranch
Being a brand new grandfather, I’m thinking quite a lot about the growing up process. More to the point, I’m thinking about my grandson, and also about his new parents. I’m remembering my boyhood, and also my young venture into parenthood a quarter of a century back. “Failure” was unthinkable back then – when I was a young boy and a young dad. “Failure” was judgment, condemnation, no-second-chances, embarrassment, shame. I knew then that I had to get it right, or at least pretend that I had.
What I understand better now is that failure hurts, yes, and is disappointing, embarrassing, painful, and sobering. Failure really bruises my pride. My first-blush, each time I slip on a banana peel and land on my backside, is discouragement! That’s the natural, human side of failure, and I’m as determined at 56 years of age not to fail as I was at age 6, or 26.
But what I also understand is that failure is normal. It is an everyday occurrence. It is – here’s the real crux of the matter – necessary. Failure is a gift, a necessity for growth, a condition for maturity and greatness. We don’t ever get to accomplish something awesome unless we go along the pathway filled with trips, falls, failures, beat-red faces, and learning. It’s best if we make some peace with this fact sooner, rather than later.
Today, I’m not going to be reflecting on the harm we bring to ourselves when we deny failure and drive ourselves toward the impossible standard of perfection. I am very familiar with the harms that lie on that pathway, so it’s an article I’m equipped to write, and maybe I will one of these days. But, today, I want to talk about the reasons that a failure is a gift.
1. Learning demands failure.
I can’t say that I like that this is true, but what I like is usually not given a vote, where the governance of reality is concerned. If I cannot mess up, I cannot grow. If I must always be right, I cannot learn. If my project has to succeed, I cannot dare great things. Why is this the case? This is the case because the only way to get through life safe-guarded from failure is to get through life doing what you already know how to do. Which is to say, you cannot get through life.
In about nine months, I’m expecting my grandson, Clarence, to begin to work on his walking skills. Maybe sooner. Knowing his dad, I’m guessing he’ll be working to get himself onto his feet as early as possible. And here’s what I know about the skillful walker, then runner, that Clarence will become. He’s going to fall down 10,000 times. He will need to try to walk, yet unable to do so, if he wants to become a fantastic walker. Failure is demanded on the way to triumph.
And the rest of life is this same way. If I want to become better, then I must endeavor to do things that I haven’t done well before. In other words, I must risk failure. And what is the surest fact of risk? It cannot always turn out well, not if it is an actual risk.
2. Failure teaches lessons.
Space does not allow me to flesh out just how awesome a school failure is. Talk about a University! Failure hauls a universe of learnings into our daily classroom, like a generous teacher with steamer trunks of cool discoveries.For example, failure teaches us to try again. Falling down teaches us to get back up. Defeat teaches us to return to the field of battle. Fundamental to our character – the willingness to press forward – is forged in the furnace of failure.
Failure also shows us that we should not try again. That is to say, failure points out to us that the pathway we were taking was the wrong pathway. When we run straight off the cliff, like Wile E. Coyote failing to notice the hairpin turn that the Road Runner pulled at the very last moment, we discover in failure that we need to go another way. Get back up, yes! Keep going forward, sometimes. And other times? Take a look around and see if, perhaps, this failure was designed to get our attention, to stop us from going too far the wrong way so that we could notice that a better pathway was just off to our right or our left, or a treasure was under our feet, or an incredible vista above our head.
3. Failure deepens our discernment.
The observant reader will note the tension in the first two “gifts” above. Failure teaches us to get back up and press forward. Failure shows us that (after we get back up) we should not keep pressing forward. The gift of failure includes building the fortitude to never say die! And the gift of failure includes developing the humility to accept defeat, change course, and get onto our truer path.
And there is no better school for the development of wisdom, discernment, and the ability to listen, assess and, yes, wait. What should I learn from that last failure? Should I learn that I need to be more resolute, or that I need to change course?
And this may be failure’s greatest gift. Failure teaches us that we must learn how to learn. Two or three smacks to the forehead by a two-by-four can get our attention, and cause us to develop the capacity to wonder about things. In my own case, it takes 20 – 30 smacks (I’m being kind right here), but the universe is unbegrudging. Life is patient, and is willing to deliver exactly the number of smacks we need so that we can become the person we are created to become.
I will never make peace with failure. I don’t like it much, to put in mildly. But nothing of worth has come into my life that didn’t get there except for the room that was made for it by a prior failure. Failure carves out necessary spaces for the blessings to fill.
One of the chief requirements of eldership – for those of us who are parenting, coaching, and mentoring others – is that we must understand all of the above. We are to be kind. Grace and understanding and forgiveness and space must be granted to those we love. And those we love need the same kind of room to grow that we need.
Even though I can’t make peace with failure, I must. I can’t spare myself the bumps and bruises I bring upon myself, and those I love deserve the chance to become the awesome human beings they are to become. Which is to say, those I love deserve the chance to learn how to stand, and then to walk, and in due course, to run like the cheetah.
Photo by Melissa Harman