Why Failure Sucks So Bad
(And Is So Good For You)
Failing sucks. A lot. Sometimes you fail because of weakness, like not being able to do those last five seconds of a workout or not being able to start a work out because Netflix exists. Sometimes you fail because of carelessness or impatience, like sending out that email with a typo to thousands of clients. And sometimes you fail by accident, like getting a parking ticket for returning to your car five minutes after the meter expired. Why-ever it occurs, failure is frustrating, it’s discouraging, and at some point, it causes us to fundamentally challenge whatever we’re failing at. Failure is powerful and even important not in spite of its negative side effects, but because of them.
Today was one of those days. One of those days when three of the “hypothetical” failures mentioned in the above paragraphs happened to me. Failure one occurred bright and early at morning yoga. I’m sure all my yogis out there are thinking, “Sarah, you can’t fail at yoga. Whatever is right for your body is just perfect, namaste.” And to all my yogis out there I just want to say, if you call yourself a yogi, you’ve probably forgotten what it feels
like to fail at yoga. For people who aren’t yet Om-deep in the yoga doctrine, yoga teachers who saunter around the room while instructing you to “just breath” through endless half-dolphin moon planks (or whatever they’re called) are enough to make you want to strangle them with your strap, roll them up in their mat, and hide them under that mountain of yoga blocks and buddha tanks in the closet. To add insult to injury, while squatting in a wide-legged public toilet asana for the 10,000th minute, she told us to smile. At this ludicrous recommendation, an older lady near the door jumped out of her child’s pose, ran towards the instructor, and drop kicked her in the vagina.
Just kidding, that didn’t really happen. But thinking about it helped me smile through the last five seconds before I gave up and sank onto the mat.
A few hours later, I hit send on a MailChimp email to our client list and triumphantly dialed our sales director to tell him it was done.
“The email is finished, sent, and completely taken care of.”
“Oh.” The dreaded Oh. “Do you remember when we talked about running it by the big guy?” Read: the boss.
“He hasn’t responded yet has he?”
“So you didn’t run it by him before you sent it.”
I could feel all the Spongebob’s in my head running around frantically, checking papers that said check with boss against papers that said send the email. I was suppose to and I didn’t, I don’t know why. Strike two.
My final fail came after a client meeting at a local pub. Getting back into my overheated car, I glanced at the parking meter out the windshield. The lights were flashing red. I’d never seen a meter do that before, but I wasn’t worried, my watch said it was 5:58pm, and parking on this street was free after 6pm. Then I saw it. That dreaded white envelope tucked under my windshield wiper. I pried it out, still hoping it was just a terrible advertisement for a hipster stationary company. No such luck. It was a parking ticket for $30 (with $12.50 in fees??). And it had been written at 5:53. 5:53. Five minutes before I had gotten back to my car, three minutes after the meter had expired, and eight minutes before it was ENTIRELY FREE TO PARK HERE.
All the pervasive failure in my day prompted me to do a little research. You may be familiar with the movement that’s been afoot for the past few hundred years in America about being forgiving of failure. Don’t get me wrong, I believe in not shaming people for taking risks, but in recent years, especially in tech, failure has become a fad. Investors want to see that their founders have failed before they invest, entrepreneurs get famous talking about failed companies, and Google made Google Glass. So I want to know, is failure all it’s cracked up to be?
The answer I found is… sometimes (damn you, reasoned argument!). According to science (Manu Kapur, National Institute of Education in Singapore), children who learn by being given a task and being allowed to fumble through it and fail many times have a much stronger conceptual understanding of the task than children who are formally taught and then practice.
“The brain is a prediction engine, a pattern recognition machine. We have experiences, we use those experiences to make predictions, and then we guess our way through the world. With each passing guess, we grow wiser.”
Failure may be good for learning, but in terms of business, it’s overhyped. People like Walt Disney and Donald Trump are lauded as entrepreneurs who nearly destroyed their companies but didn’t, but at the same time, their failures were not all, or even mostly, their own. Thousands of people who worked for their companies lost their jobs and livelihoods as a result of the failures of individuals. Even for startups and founders who are aiming a little lower than Trump-status, glorifying failure takes away from the reality of the experience. Failure sucks. Its discouraging, frustrating, and eventually makes you fundamentally question the thing that your failing at, which for a lot of startup founders is their life’s work. Failure should not be celebrated, recovery from failure perhaps, but not the failure itself.
So where does that leave me? Even as I pushed my forehead into my yoga mat to hide my tears of frustration, I never questioned whether I would be back at the gym tomorrow. I’d like to say its because “Take that, failure!” but in reality, its because I go to yoga. That’s what I do, its a habit. That’s one way to conquer failure, just show up. Some days are good days where you nail that tree pose like you invented the damn thing and some days you just lie on your back for an hour “meditating”, but you never fail to show up. Then there’s that learning thing, where you let your brain use those past experiences to inform future ones (i.e. be careful with the MailChimp). And sometimes no matter what you do, bad luck abounds, and failure sneaks up on us, and when that happens, we do what we can to make it right (after you contest it in court because come on, it was three minutes!). Or you can reframe the whole situation by reminding yourself that “It could be so much worse” and mark the day down as a draw.