How do you define failure? Here’s how world-renowned basketball player Michael Jordan defines it: “I’ve missed over 9000 shots in my career, have been beaten in 300 matches, been entrusted with the matchpoint 26 times and missed them as well. I’ve failed again and again and again and that is why I succeeded.” If Jordan had blamed himself after every missed shot and gotten hung up on his failures, would he have become the famous athlete that he is today? Failure is not an end. Quite the opposite, each failure is a step we take on the way to success, as well as a chance we can take to observe ourselves.
We are under immense pressure to be successful and meet certain criteria from the moment we’re born. This is a pressure that our family, friends and society imposes on us, often without realizing it. We grow up seeking adults’ approval and attention and in time we begin to equate this praise and approval with success. As adults we are then determined to “succeed”. But what does that mean exactly? How does one even measure success?
The definition of success generally changes from community to community and even person to person, based on their values, expectations and criteria. Individuals that are considered “successful” are paraded in front of us on the news and social media, thereby engraving the rules and standards of success on our subconscious and conscious minds. We then find ourselves losing battles that we didn’t want to engage in, in the first place. Think about it, have you ever felt conflicted about what you find to be successful versus what others deem to be successful? If you have, this might be because of a conflict between what you really want and what you think you want.
Here’s the most important question you need to ask yourself in such a case: What are your criteria for success and how do you measure it? When do you feel successful and when do you feel like you’ve failed? Are success and failure opposites or are they two different ways of looking at a certain set of circumstances?
It’s important that we take the time to answer these questions for ourselves and reshape our relationship to failure, because we each define failure in a different way. What are some of our most common preconceived notions of failure? Let’s look at them together.
If you’re a perfectionist you might think you need to “succeed” at whatever you’re doing on the first try. Perfection is so important to you that having to pause, giving yourself a break, trying something again, or even asking for help can be a small failure for you. But here’s the problem with that logic: Perfection doesn’t exist. It is, in fact, a big lie. It’s physically impossible for any living creature, situation or object to be “perfect” or constantly perform “perfectly”. Once you start to accept that and realize that you can only do anything to the best of your ability at the time, the negative connotation with failure will begin to evolve into a gentle nudge that life is giving you to try again.
Failure can serve to remind you that you’re learning, growing, changing, and evolving. When we focus solely on “succeeding”, we may become blind to everything we’re experiencing and learning along the way. It’s like tunnel vision, where you can only see the endpoint and can’t seem to stop to enjoy the view. Yet that shouldn’t be the case with failure. When you fail, you’re given a chance to pause, look around, and look back at the path you’ve taken and the decisions you’ve made. It forces us to become more aware of ourselves and internalize lessons, values, and observations that we can then take with us as we move forward. In a way, failure can be the doorway to our biggest revelations if we regard it as such.
When we start to change our perspective on failure, we may start to realize what a great opportunity it offers us. Sure, it’s easy to look back and smile at our failures when we’ve finally succeeded or reached our goal. But can you smile at your failure as you’re experiencing it? I’m not suggesting that we jump for joy when we’ve failed, but we can practice gratitude, patience, and compassion with ourselves when we’ve failed. In doing so, we may find tiny doses of joy in tapping into our sense of resilience, recognizing what we’ve learned, and what we’re capable of.
Enjoying the ride doesn’t just mean just enjoying the positive parts of a journey. It can also mean enjoying the whole journey, even its painful parts. Failure can make you focus on the road you’re on. This way, instead of thinking you’re headed for disaster, you can take stock and see that you’re alright. In such cases, it doesn’t matter that you’ve failed. You’re not at the end of your journey and the path will continue forward. All you have to do is lift your head up, look forward, and continue on.
Think of the best inspirational speeches you’ve heard. What makes them so enticing and compelling? Failure. Failure is a flavor that’s appreciated by all palettes. Why? Because it’s indicative of so many values that we admire. To have faced failure and continued on requires courage, resilience, vulnerability, wisdom, and self-awareness. This also applies to yourself.
If you succeed in achieving a goal with minimal effort, no obstacles, challenges, or pain, it almost feels surreal, deflating, and dissatisfying when you’ve obtained what you were working toward. Whether it’s because of our egos or just our nature, it seems to feel so much more gratifying, satisfying, and fulfilling when you can look back and see how much you overcame to get to where you are. If life is an already delicious dish we’re working our way through, failure is that extra special spice or sauce that just adds to the whole dining experience. Failure can make the experience that you’re having all the more valuable and memorable.
If you’re a perfectionist or accept defeat the minute you stumble, please take note: Failure is the best teacher we can have. “An example is better than precept,” as the old proverb goes. If you’ve made a mistake, you can always learn from it and use what you learned on the way to success. Who knows? You might not have learned something that will prove invaluable to you on your path, had you not failed.
Failure can also remind us that there is a life outside of ourselves. It can make us realize that we can’t always have what we want when we want it. This is not a bad thing: It’s just a different lesson that failure can teach us or rather to our ego: “You are not the only person with wants, desires, and goals. There are other people who want to succeed as well.” In reminding us of this, failure can help you to reexamine yourself, as well as observe the lives of others.
The fact that there’s life outside of your own, or that you’re not the center of the universe, doesn’t mean that you’re not in control. You have the power to determine your own path, even if your ego is taking a beating at the same time. You are in the driver’s seat of your own life. You decide which way you want to go, no matter what happens. Any failures you have along the way can help you see that you should change course. It may even make you see that you’ve set out prematurely and therefore turn back. And remember, there’s a big difference between walking away from something of your own, free will and quitting it because you’re unsure. Failure can help you see this and realize that the goal you set for yourself isn’t for you or wasn’t set by you. Failure gives us the chance to uncover other paths we can take, other goals that we can set for ourselves and ways to start over. What’s important here is your attitude and point of view because these are the things that will be your lifelong teacher and open new doors for you in the future.
And now let’s turn the conversation around to your perspective. Do you agree or disagree with any points made in this article? In your opinion, what are some of the most positive aspects failure has to offer us? Have you always viewed failure as a learning opportunity or is that something you’re still working on?
Let’s get this conversation started! Share with us your thoughts in the comment section below.
Written by: Burcu Durmuşoğlu
Translated by: Zeynep Sen