Failure is in the Eye of the Beholder

Failure. We’ve all experienced it and we all react to it differently. None of us gets through life unscathed. And if you are a person of similar age to me and you are reading this thinking, “Nope. Not me. I’ve NEVER failed!”, then that’s a whole other conversation we need to have about risk-taking and courage.

We experience failure in many different forms: a mistake on the job; that time we said something that we had to go back and apologize for; a damaged relationship. Some of us experience it with a fair degree of regularity, while others experience it less often. And some of us bounce back from failure easily while for others, it takes the wind completely out of our sails.

As the Olympics came to a close last night I found myself thinking about failure. Many athletes in the closing ceremonies went to Rio and left empty-handed without a medal. Would you consider them failures for not “winning”, or are they successes for being the best in their respective countries and making it to the games at all? Some athletes will be welcomed home as heroes regardless of their competitive outcomes, while others may be berated for not taking the top prize or doing as well as expected. Like beauty, failure is in the eye of the beholder.

Like the famous Thomas Edison quote at the top of this blog, Some view failure as a learning experience. Others view it like the R.E.M. song, “It’s the End of the World (as we know it)”.

Take Hope Solo’s widely documented response to her Olympic failure. Instead of commenting on what was not her best personal performance and taking partial ownership for the team’s loss, she blamed the opposing team for playing as “cowards”. Rather than handling this defeat with grace and dignity, she unprofessionally lashed out at the team that was victorious. The Women’s Soccer team was expected to win the Gold. As one of the most decorated goal keepers in USA Soccer history, she hasn’t had a ton of experience with failure. Afterward, she admitted as much tweeting, “Losing sucks. I’m really bad at it.” I think I can still feel her seething even though the Games are over.

Contrast that with the story of USA gymnast Simone Biles and her Olympic experience, where she was predicted to win 5 Gold medals during the Games. Is she a failure because she only won 4 Gold medals and 1 Bronze in Rio, versus the 5 Golds she was expected to win? Hardly! Yet many media outlets talked about her bobble on the balance beam as if the Olympic games had just come to a devastating end for her.

Fortunately, she had great perspective on her bronze medal performance — a perspective that probably helped her regroup and go on to win her final Gold medal with her floor routine. TeamUSA.org published,

It stops Biles’ quest to win five gold medals in one Olympics, which has never been done before. But the American said that wasn’t a personal goal — only one that has come from the media covering her.
At 19, I can’t put all that stress on myself,” Biles said sternly. “I’m only 19. You guys want it more than I do. I just want to do the routines that I practice. It’s human — you just get a little nervous.”

At a much smaller scale, my first professional failure came at the age of 22. It’s a longer story, but suffice it to say I was put in charge of a project and I failed to sufficiently do my homework. The end result cost our department in lost revenue and in reputation. While I was mortified, my supervisor handled it with grace. We debriefed the project for the mistakes that were made and the lessons learned. And while she handled it well and has probably long forgotten it, I still have a visual reminder of my errors related to that project hanging in my office to remind me to slow down, ask all the right questions, compare possible outcomes, and work to see the future before it arrives. Her response to my mistakes formed many of my personal reactions to failure, including:

  1. It’s not personal. While I personally may be experiencing a failure, that failure doesn’t define me. Separate the issue from the personality to get a more objective read on the issue.
  2. I’m my own toughest critic — it’s never quite as bad as I feel like it is. I’ve failed a lot and none of them have ever been fatal.
  3. When confronted with a failure I have 2 choices: move on and aim higher next time, or curl up and become useless. The latter — infused with healthy doses of blame and shame — doesn’t help me or my colleagues.
  4. Progress happens through learning from the defeats, rather than the victories.

Conductor and Master Teacher Benjamin Zander recommends a response of “How Fascinating!” to the mistakes that we make. (It’s well worth the 2 minutes it will take you to watch him here.)

ABC’s Wide World of Sports used to have an opening that juxtaposed “the thrill of victory, and the agony of defeat”. What if we view failure through a new lens and re-define failure as fascinating or a thrill, rather than agony?

What failure means to each of us is self-defined. Our challenge is to look at it constructively, objectively, and for the lessons we can learn from it. For me, I’d rather try and fail with honor than play it safe and never try at all.

Success is rarely a straight path: it’s one step froward, two steps back. What we are able to learn from each mis-step will ultimately determine our level of success. And fortunately it’s never to late to redefine how we view — and react to — failure.

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