Progress, development, growth and achievement — these are all things for which we strive. We seek short-term gains in the hope that they will continue to move us onward and upward. The successes we experience assure us that we are moving in the right direction and that we are on track.
Failure, on the other hand, is precisely what we avoid. Nobody wants to fail. When we fail, it is an indication that we are not on track, that we have missed something and that we are not yet good enough. Failing is miserable and we would never contemplate celebrating it. But, maybe we should.
Reflect on some of your most memorable learning experiences and you will probably find that they came from situations of great challenge. It is through the obstacles, suffering and failures in our lives that we learn and develop most. In fact, the bigger the challenge, the bigger the potential gain to be had.
We actually learn very little from succeeding, other than the realization that we can probably repeat this success in a similar future scenario. When we fail, however distressing and painful it might be, the opportunity to learn from it is far greater than any success could conceivably be. It is this learning that inspires growth and development.
Failures are, of course, widely reported in the cases of celebrities. Everyone enjoys a great underdog story of someone who rises against the odds and achieves greatness in spite of shortcomings and unfortunate circumstances. Bill Gates’ first company, Traf-O-Data, failed abysmally, while Albert Einstein was regarded as unintelligent during his childhood.
Thomas Edison famously failed more than 1,000 times before inventing the light bulb, while Oprah Winfrey was fired from her first reporting job after being deemed “unfit for TV.” Van Gogh only sold one painting in his lifetime and Steven Spielberg was rejected from the USC School of Cinematic Arts — twice!
I would bet that every person has had not only to overcome obstacles and failures to achieve greatness, but that the very obstacles and failures inspired the greatness. So, why is it that we live in a culture that suppresses the idea of failure so deeply?
We place a large emphasis on winning, being right and not making mistakes. We treat failure like an unfortunate disease. We take measures to avoid its occurrence and when we do fail, we deny it, make excuses or counsel ourselves through it. We put ourselves under so much stress to avoid failure, yet paradoxically, failure could very well be the greatest developmental tool that we possess in the pursuit of greatness.
This requires a shift in mindset. Rather than viewing a stressful situation or new unknown with negativity due to the potential of slipping us up, we must recognize it as an opportunity for growth. Those periods of being overloaded with assignments, having to work with difficult individuals, embarking on a new and overwhelming projects or taking on a task that requires skills you lack are times when we grow.
But, rather than approach these situations with caution, anxiety and guards held high, identify the potential for growth and enjoy the challenge to come. If the struggle itself is not enough of an opportunity to spark development, the future mistakes and failures that will come certainly will be.
Our goal is to succeed in the short term. The bigger the challenges and obstacles we face, the less likely we are to succeed and the more likely we are to grow if we fail. This is not to suggest that we should not strive for success, but rather, success should be our end goal in the bigger picture. We should view the failures we encounter along the way as meaningful contributions to this end goal.
If we want to enjoy greatness, let’s begin by counting our blessings. Each and every opportunity we have allows us to fail and then to grow as a result.
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