The Unseen Benefits of Failure

Well…. #$@&%*.

You screwed up again, didn’t you? And you know what that means. It means you’re a failure. Well my friend, let me be the first to congratulate you! I’m a failure too, and I couldn’t be prouder. Oh man, I’ve failed loads of times. More than I could ever possibly count. Some of my mistakes, both conscious and accidental, have been small and mostly inconsequential. Others have been so monumentally, unfathomably stupid that they are still impacting my life today. And of course there’s everything else in between.

But you know what? If I could go back in time I wouldn’t change a thing, and I’ll tell you why.

Before we go any further let’s define failure so we’re all on the same page. For our purposes today we’re going to define failure as “being unsuccessful in accomplishing a purpose”. In other words, I’m not talking about things that happened to you that were outside of your control, such as that time you got fired because the company was downsizing and for no other reason. That’s a conversation for another time. Today, I’m only talking about the things you actually did that created an unintended result you didn’t necessarily want.

Okay, so here’s why I love failure. Failure gives you feedback. I mean, can you imagine what would happen in a “perfect” world where you never found out if you failed? In other words, to you, failure didn’t exist? Sure, your sensitive feelings would be spared, and you’d feel pretty good about yourself, but you would also continue blindly doing the same things over and over, never truly knowing whether or not it was working.

This is why you need failure. Yeah, I said it. You need to go out and fail. Excessively. Failure is the only guaranteed effective way to find out what doesn’t work. Granted, it might leave you feeling worthless, embarrassed, and craving Netflix and ice cream, but from that point of bitter disappointment you’re so much closer to discovering what actually will work.

Side-note: This is assuming that you consciously choose to look at every failure as a learning opportunity and you glean some insight from it. If you only see a failure as an unfair kick in the teeth, as being outside of your control, or as being fate, karma, somebody else’s fault, etc, (in other words, if you choose not to learn and try something different.) then life, in its infinite generosity, will keep beating you over the head with the same pain and failure over and over until you get it.

So now that you know failure is awesome, what are you going to do now? Go ask a stranger how many months pregnant she is? Jump off your roof holding an umbrella? Deliberately mark every wrong answer on your math test?

Please, for all our sakes, don’t. I’m not saying you should go out of your way to fail for no apparent reason, take unwise or unnecessary risks, or try to market tuna-flavored ice cream just in case it might be a bestseller.

What I do recommend is failing carefully, consciously, and deliberately. Continually troubleshoot and course-correct. Do small, controlled experiments whose potential failure (worst case scenario) is something you can live with. Test your assumptions. Put yourself out there and be willing to be wrong! Seek disconfirming information. Find out just how strong you really are. Be willing to try new things.  And when the painful and unpleasant feelings arise, threatening to put you into Defense Mode, then practice Being With It. Above all, be patient with yourself and understand that mastery comes with time.

Success is an iterative process. You’re not going to be a brilliant artist the first time you pick up a brush. However, the world will ultimately never have the beautiful and unique art that only you could’ve given us if you aren’t willing to try.

Happy failing, my friend!

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