Often coaches (and consultants) ask, “What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?” I understand they ask that particular question to motivate, to support bigger visions. The trouble with the question is it demonstrates a disturbing underlying assumption. The assumption is that failure is bad for us! It isn’t!
Instead, if we look at failure as a teacher, a modifier, offering up of the very feedback we need to adjust, adapt, succeed, we see the rewards instead of the embarrassment, disappointment, or other negatives associated with failing!
If we can hold failure with the respect it deserves, we can implement the adjustments, shifts, changes that make our project, our process – our very lives better. And failure offers other rewards.
We learn resilience in the process of failing… and going on. Resilience is a necessary part of living and it doesn’t arise spontaneously. It requires falling down and getting up – many, many times.
Another benefit of failure is the cultivation of the capacity to live with complexity. Failure frequently shows us what it takes to go for more complex goals, more complicated processes than we originally envisioned.
Ultimately we learn that in the face of the inevitable challenges of life – disease, old age, death, of loved ones, of ourselves, we can have the resilience and experience to meet Life and Death with grace.
Failure isn’t a dirty word. It’s an experience we desperately need – to grow, to develop a sense of our power. Without overcoming difficulties, how do we measure our strength?
What crushes us isn’t our failures but our often misguided responses to it. Why?
In a culture drunk on success stories, often “overnight” and sensational, we pay little attention to what diligent revision, adjusting, revising preceded the ultimate success. We blink at or force our eyes closed to the feedback loops offered up so generously by failures.
We forget how many attempts the Wright brothers made before they flew, or how many equations Einstein dumped before getting his theory of relativity in shape for others to understand or how many terrible predictions were made about Apple stock before they were shouted down by the introduction of the iPad. The examples pile up like driftwood after a storm. Out attention is engaged only by the the wins, the successes. Sadly, we lose out on a real opportunity to learn the value of trying, again and again and often give up too soon.
“Yes, yes” we may say to other people’s failures, nodding sagely at how they learned from their disappointments. Yet rarely do we welcome our own failures with open arms.
Failure is a part of life. The real question becomes, can we make it a welcome part? Can we see the gifts it bestows upon us – in our endeavors, in our development, in our lives?
And what about the compassion that accrues when we can see failure as something not to be shunned, but rather as a natural part of growth? Compassion is another gift that failure bestows, compassion for ourselves and others – the human condition.
If we hold failure as feedback, not only are we physically and psychologically healthier, but we open to the opportunity to succeed brilliantly. Our very power rests in the way we handle our failures.
So the question that might replace, “What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail,” might be” What would you do if your failures provided insights, compassion, resilience and strength? As every other guest at our banquet, like Curiosity, iIntuition, Adaptability, let’s welcome Failure with the grace and dignity it deserves.