The romantic relationship that went sour after six months. The job interview that didn’t result in a job offer. The startup business that shut down.
What do these situations have in common? They’re all examples of failure. It is such a normal part of our existence. Without it, how can we possibly expect to succeed?
While failure is as common as eating or walking, it’s how we react after we’ve experienced failure that defines us. Either we can suffer in silence and decide to never try anything again, or we can dust ourselves off and get back on the horse (or bicycle, if you prefer) and keep riding. As someone recently shared with me this bit of wisdom from her CEO: “Don’t be afraid to fail.”
Aren’t we all afraid of failure? Failure is normal. It is expected. How many of us want so much to be successful in everything we do that sometimes we turn a blind eye to the value failure brings to our experience? Perhaps we should begin to honor our failures as much as we celebrate our successes. After all, we learn more from our failures than we do from our successes. We learn perseverance, patience and resilience. We learn the conviction of our ideas, our talents and our hard work.
For each project that fails to meet a deadline, for every team that does not achieve its year-end sales goals, for every relationship that slips away, and for every business that shuts its doors, there is something to be gained. We cannot be afraid to fail. It is as vital to our lives as breathing. We cannot be afraid to fail if we want to be successful someday.
Just look to Thomas Edison and Abraham Lincoln, two of the most successful men in American history. We might remember them for their successes, but they had many failures too. We remember Thomas Edison as the inventor of the light bulb and phonograph, but he invented many other items in his lifetime that failed to catch on with the public, such as electric pens, automatic vote recorder, and tinfoil phonograph. But he didn’t allow the failure of these inventions to derail him. He kept going, and kept inventing.
Abraham Lincoln ran for public office multiple times, and won a few races along the way. But we remember him for his ultimate victory, becoming the 16th President of the United States.
The reason why these men eventually succeeded was because they refused to dwell on their past failures. Dwelling on failures will only slow you down and make you doubt yourself, and that’s the last thing you want to feel about yourself. As a colleague told me many years ago, “Fear and doubt will kill every opportunity that comes your way.” Perhaps more troubling than failure is not trying at all.
So what if we fail? We can all learn from Edison and Lincoln, who clearly refused to let their failures define them. They refused to give up. I believe what is necessary after a loss or failure is to take a step back and reassess what happened and why, and more important, to do so without blame or self-recrimination (which can be tempting, but counter-productive). Most of all, remember that just because a project ended or a business failed, it does not mean you are a failure as a human being.
Failure may be the best thing that happens to us in our lifetimes. We might feel embarrassed, ashamed or guilty about our failures, but there is nothing to fear from them. Maybe it’s time to appreciate them for what they are and how they make us better people over the long term.