“Realists do not fear the results of their studies.”
— F. Dostoevsky
Talking about failure is super trendy these days. It seems like anyone who has ever accomplished anything is taking the stage to publicly disclose how how their fuck-ups led them to success.
Of course, there’s an important lesson in all this talk of failure. The problem is that the message is getting lost as a result of who’s delivering it.
Success is a happy ending and it’s precisely that happy ending that drew the audience in the first place. No one comes out to hear how some random guy failed miserably and didn’t recover — they come to hear about the hero’s triumphs.
They want to feel inspired. They want to feel like anything is possible. They want to imagine a wonderful future for themselves, not one full of drudgery with no reward.
The fact is, most of us won’t live out fairy tale endings — we normal folk are not likely to achieve international notoriety, nor will we gain a TED stage where we publicly reflect on how everything works out wonderfully in the end.
That’s how all this talk of failure by the successful misses the mark — the more we are encouraged to connect failures to some imaginary future, the more we trip up as we try to understand the role failing plays in our normal, everyday lives.
Lets take a look at plain old normal person failure. You know, the kind you and I experience. The kind we are all deadly afraid of and avoid as much as we possibly can.
Psychologically, failure feels like death. We take extreme measures to avoid it because when it happens, a part of us does die— the version of ourselves we imagined we might be.
Sometimes we dodge this death by not taking any action at all. We’d rather talk about what we are going to do, creating ever more detailed plans fed with ever more information. By not doing anything, our future selves remain in tact, alive and full of hope.
Other times we take action and then ignore the feedback we receive. Our confirmation bias kicks in as we compute only what affirms our current understanding of ourselves and block out all that doesn’t.
Both of these dispositions help us to remain in an imaginary place. We can only see who we want to be, not who we are. That makes bringing the two into alignment rather difficult, if not impossible.
If we are interested in actually knowing ourselves, in growing into wiser and more experienced version of our selves, then we must learn how to face what is real. And reality, unfortunately, harbours all kinds of unpleasant things, including the sometimes ugly and always fallible selves we are at this current moment.
What Failure Teaches the Willing.
- Failure teaches humility.
It reveals the size of our ego as we come to terms with just how ‘unspecial’ we actually are. It shows us that our mere existence doesn’t automatically grant us people’s admiration, appreciation or support. It shows us that these must be earned.
- Failure humanizes.
It shows us we are not legends or myths or heroes — we are normal people slogging through the same thing that anyone has to slog through in order to accomplish anything. Failure shows us that character is built upon fierce confrontations with reality and truth, not fantasy and hopeful thinking.
- Failure grounds.
It crashes us head first into the earth allowing us to find something solid upon which we can build. It adds substance to our actions, our thoughts, our ideas. It gives us perspective.
- Failure opens us up to learning.
It forces us to confront the fact that we don’t know everything, that we can’t know everything. This type of learning doesn’t bring ‘a-ha’ moments making us feel brilliant— no, these lessons are more like a kick in the gut. When all the hot air is forced out of our lungs (and heads), only then are we ready to breath in something fresh, something new.
- Failure is loss— it hurts, always.
Those who experience it go through a grieving cycle as they learn to let go of what will never be, in favour of what is. Failing shows us that despite the pain, we can and do survive these losses. We learn that by going through this process, by surfacing the unacknowledged and unaccepted parts of ourselves, we grow as humans. We develop a real relationship to our real selves.
And each moment of each day, we are simple, normal, ordinary humans, walking on this planet. That, in and of itself, is a freaking miracle.
Let’s not squander it by forever focusing on what we could be, rather than understanding who we actually are, right now.
Whatever comes of that, so be it.