Failure is valuable!
“I am just planning to become an astronaut and then people will just give me my driving license” I jokingly said to my friend when I told her that I had failed my driving test my fourth time in 2011 and that I would fail again, because I didn’t believe I was able to pass. When I was younger I really wanted to become an astronaut, and this is why I studied astronomy, pursued an internship at the European Space Agency, and volunteered in space-related projects. My friend laughed at the fact that in my mind it seemed easier to become an astronaut than obtaining my driving license, as if rocket science was much easier than traffic signals.
Failing the driving test was the first time I failed a test in my life and so far my biggest failure. I used to be able to pass every exam with the best grade. It was a big thing in my head – I just didn’t believe I could ever pass. Seven years have passed since, and I haven’t dared trying again.
But what does failure really mean?
Failure has many facets. It comes in many forms. For example it could be the condition we find ourselves in when we have not met our expected goal. Or how we might feel when we don’t meet somebody else’s expectations. Sometimes it doesn’t even entail missing a set goal, it could just be an occasion where we feel we didn’t behave as expected or we feel we should have done better. While I could try to provide a more comprehensive definition of failure, I believe that the conditions that define a failure, and the feelings associated with it, are very personal. Yet, I believe it is very important to learn to identify when we feel failed and learn from our mistakes.
Most of us were brought up with beliefs like “Failure is bad” and “Failure must be avoided.” In addition to that, “I told you so” is often what we hear when we fail.
This is why it often feels so horrible when we fail, because we feel that failing might expose and shame us. In the end, we tend to do anything to avoid it.
Failing that driving test made me wish the ground would open and swallow me up. All my self-esteem crumbled down, as that single event was an all-defining moment of truth that exposed me to the world for the fraud that I was.
Surprisingly, the right words came from my career-oriented mom: “Don’t worry, this failure only makes you human.” This was the best thing one could have said to me at that moment. It replaced my sense of failure with one of belonging.
I’m only human
I make mistakes
I’m only human
That’s all it takes
To put the blame on me
Don’t put the blame on me
– “Human” by Rag’n’Bone Man, my favorite song about failure and human condition
Because failure hurts me so much, I have recently spent some time trying to understand its deeper meaning. Spending Summer 2016 in Israel for a summer school really helped opening my eyes about the positive value of failure. As our host explained to us, it’s part of the Israeli culture to teach children that failure means discovering that something doesn’t work. This discovery provides the knowledge necessary to attempt another approach or to accept the situation and moving on.
That wisdom is along the lines of what Dr. Travis Bradberry describes in his article “Here’s why your attitude is more important than your intelligence”:
“Failure is information – we label it failure, but it’s more like, ‘This didn’t work, and I’m a problem solver, so I’ll try something else.’”
The author describes why failure is important in life and in achieving success by explaining how our attitude determines whether we can use failure for something positive:
“People with a growth mindset don’t feel helpless because they know that in order to be successful, you need to be willing to fail hard and then bounce right back.”
With “bouncing back” the author means taking action to overcome paralyzing emotions that failure often causes, like shame and guilt.
“Take action. It’s not that people with a growth mindset are able to overcome their fears because they are braver than the rest of us; it’s just that they know fear and anxiety are paralyzing emotions and that the best way to overcome this paralysis is to take action. People with a growth mindset are empowered, and empowered people know that there’s no such thing as a truly perfect moment to move forward. So why wait for one? Taking action [as opposed to being paralyzed] turns all your worry and concern about failure into positive, focused energy. People with an empowered, growth-oriented mindset embrace adversity as a means for improvement, as opposed to something that holds them back.”
Another important aspect of changing our attitude towards failure is that stigmatizing mistakes kills our capacity for creativity. Ken Robinson says in his TED talk “Do schools kill creativity”:
“[Kids are] not frightened of being wrong. I don’t mean to say that being wrong is the same thing as being creative. What we do know is, if you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original […]. And by the time they get to be adults, most kids have lost that capacity. They have become frightened of being wrong. And we run our companies like this. We stigmatize mistakes. And we’re now running national education systems where mistakes are the worst thing you can make. And the result is that we are educating people out of their creative capacities.
Picasso once said […] that all children are born artists. The problem is to remain an artist as we grow up. I believe […] passionately, that we don’t grow into creativity, we grow out of it. Or rather, we get educated out of it.”
Sure, it’s not easy to warp our mind around the idea that failure is valuable when we have been told for all our lives that failure is bad. On the one hand, I have learned to cope very well with failure, and to bounce back on my feet as quickly as possible. On the other hand, I still try to avoid failure at all cost. When I fail, the first thing I feel is guilt. Guilt of possibly having overlooked facts that would have prevented me from failing. Guilt for possibly not having listened to people who had predicted the outcome. Guilt for not being good enough. Yet, when I accept the failure and stop beating myself up, I see the positive things that have come with it, the new doors that have opened or a new insight about me and about the world. Failure is valuable! It is okay to fail and, most importantly, it is okay to talk about it! Share your feelings about failure with someone else; their compassion will make you realize that there is always a light at the end of the tunnel and that there is something positive to take from failure! #Saywhatis!
What is the most recent situation you have experienced failure? How did that feel and what did you take out of it? Please share your experiences as a comment here or as a private message!
Written by Julia Heuritsch | Last edited: 14th June 2022