Reclaiming failure is about owning failure – making failure work for us instead of being something to fear or avoid. By understanding how failure works, and talking through tactics for changing our relationship with failure, we can learn faster, grow more, and achieve things we might not have even attempted before.
This commercial is one of my all-time favorites. It’s a simple voiceover with footage of Michael Jordan missing shots, messing up, and blowing it. He recounts several statistics before closing with:
“I’ve failed over, and over, and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
There is something beautiful about one of the best basketball players of all time attributing his monumental success to his many failures. I also love that he mentions the “26 times” he’s been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed, but doesn’t mention how many times he’s succeeded (I wonder which number is greater).
Surely, Jordan’s success is attributable to other things as well – talent, hard work, great coaching, and I’m sure others. However, this embodiment of the “go big or go home” mentality certainly speaks to Jordan’s willingness to engage with failure, to put himself in situations where success or failure has big consequences, and also to his bravery in the face of difficulty. Engaging with failure, or even the risk of failure, over time has the effect of making us more comfortable with the idea. If we feel brave or empowered in situations where failure is possible, then the fear of failure becomes less of an obstacle. The more we face our fear of failure, the less power failure has over us.
Perhaps Jordan’s early engagement with failure allowed him to develop a partial immunity to its effects. By engaging with failure in ways that are manageable for us, we inoculate ourselves to the effects, allowing us to grow into situations where the failure is more intimidating.
I’ve failed tests. I’ve failed people — some of whom are very important to me and who were greatly affected by my failures. I’ve failed several million times to do something just the way I envisioned it in my mind, whether that was drawing a picture, executing a skateboard trick, or remembering to take the trash cans down to the street on trash day. An entire series of books could be written about my many failures as a parent of seven kids. Volume one of the series might be titles something like, “All the ways Bill sucks at caring for babies.” Volume ten, still a work in progress, is tentatively called, “Parenting Adult Children: Discovering the Right Way by Trying All the Wrong Ones First.” Sometimes it feels like the number of failed ideas I’ve had in my life must outnumber the total number of ideas the average person has in theirs. One early tragedy in this pile of failed ideas was my great idea to build, manufacture, and sell actual working hoverboards after seeing Back to the Future 2 in theaters. I’ve failed at work. I’ve failed at home. I’ve failed in the commute from home to work (do NOT ask my wife whether I am a safe driver).
But AM I a failure?
I think most people would look at my life and say, “Absolutely not.” I have a Masters Degree and a Ph.D. from reputable institutions. I’ve had a very long career in Education, where I’ve accomplished some things that made a positive difference for students, and I’ve touched a number of student lives on a personal level. I have a great marriage to a wife that is clearly out of my league in pretty much every way imaginable (brownie points!), a large multiracial family where all seven of my kids genuinely love and support each other. Despite growing up mostly without a dad, I seem to be doing a pretty good job at parenting. My kids, in spite of having many of their own obstacles to overcome, seem to be thriving and finding their way in life — My oldest two decided to pursue college swimming, and both are swimming Division I on full rides, and both are working toward Olympic Trials qualifying times for 2020. The remaining five are each pursuing things that are important to them, but most importantly, they are good people. I think most people would look at my life, and say that I’m doing pretty well — decidedly not a failure.
So, to summarize — Despite my apparent aptitude for failure, and the massive body of evidence that supports my greatness in this category, I’m doing ok. Maybe even better than ok. Someone who knows me might say, “Well, Bill — You’re just lucky you married well.” This is true. My wife has made a massive difference in my life. However, there is something else there. If you look at my failures alongside my successes in life, you will notice a pattern, almost like an echo of one following the other. Where you see multiple failures, you often also see a success. This, I believe, is attributable to the fact that failure is a necessary ingredient in life’s most significant successes. In my life, I have managed to embrace failure as a_ part of the process. Failing isn’t a bad result. It isn’t some kind of endpoint, or a sign that I should quit trying. Instead, failure is a small step on the way to my goals – an opportunity to learn, to improve, and to rise. You see, failure is going to happen in our lives, but our relationship to failure and how we see it, use it, and own it can have a massive effect on our life’s trajectory.
Our relationship with failure can make us better teachers, better parents and better leaders too. When we look at failure differently, it gives those around us the same superpower to reframe their failures into learning opportunities, to excel in the very moment when they lose. It makes our families, classrooms, and organizations more resilient, but also braver and more creative. If we don’t fear failure, two things happen. First, we fail more, but that’s not a bad thing, remember? The second thing that happens is that we become more open, more brave, and more creative. We become better problem-solvers and more tolerant of others’ mistakes. The baggage of failure can be heavy if we let it. It weighs everybody down.
My hope for you, reader, is that you will begin to see failure in a different light. I hope that you will begin to reframe failure, to master it and use it to your advantage, and even embrace it as an ally in your own life.