“Failure is the key to success; each mistake teaches us something.”
- Morihei Ueshiba, founder of the Japanese martial art Aikido
It’s pretty hard to learn and grow if you give up the first time you fail at something. The simple fact is that each new thing that you try will come with a learning curve, and no one gets a black belt on their very first visit to the dojo. Life is about trial and error. If you keep trying new things, not all of them are going to work out. You have to make peace with that concept if you want to avoid becoming bogged down in negativity and self-doubt.
In Silicon Valley it’s almost a badge of honor to have a failed startup or two on your resume. It gives you credibility, and it shows that even though things may not have worked out as planned, you had the guts to go for it in the first place. That means something concrete; it means that you actually took the initiative to try and create something instead of just sitting on the sidelines and dreaming about it. And no matter how big the setback may have been, the most important thing is to have learned something from the experience and to not make the same mistakes again.
I always assumed that this was how everyone saw things. My life has been a constant stream of “figure it out as you go” scenarios, and there have been some serious ups and downs. I’ve started several small businesses, and risk has always been a factor. When you live like this for any length of time, you come to accept that success and failure are just shifting endpoints on a line created entirely by your perception, and your reality is floating around somewhere in between.
A couple of years ago I started volunteering at San Quentin prison with a program teaching web development skills to inmates. The goal was to prepare them with skills needed for good jobs after they are released. It turns out that California has one of the highest recidivism rates in America, and having stable employment is one of the leading contributors to success or failure for inmates re-entering society. The stakes for these individuals are enormous — their future lives and freedom will be on the line, and failure to re-integrate could potentially result in their return to prison.
Working with these men, I began to hear some very absolutist thoughts about failure. They knew that they had been granted a terrific opportunity and genuinely wanted to make the most of it. So in their minds, failure simply wasn’t allowed to be one of the options. But the program material was quite challenging, and the reality was that failure was a very real option.
Some of the participants in the program would make comments like, “I can’t fail at this, everything depends on it,” or, “This program means everything — it’s my only chance.” It’s understandable that someone who’s been in prison for a decade or more would feel this way, I know I would.
People say things like this all the time; our society loves hyperbole. We hear absolutes used so much that we don’t even take them seriously. They’ve become a slang for expressing passion or desire. It didn’t register with me that these guys were actually serious. They were convinced that this was their one and only chance, and from their perspective if they failed then all would lost to them forever.
A while back, I met a very interesting guy named Shaka Senghor after an event at San Quentin. He is no stranger to incarceration — his personal story includes 19 years in prison, with over 7 years in solitary confinement. He told me that during those dark years alone he thought intently about his life, and formulated a plan to reinvent himself. He knew that he would have to take the initiative and responsibility to create a new future after his release, and he did just that, becoming a celebrated public speaker, writer and activist.
He told me that post-release, even the best prepared former inmates can have serious trouble with life’s normal day-to-day challenges. “They have a plan, they get out, and pretty soon life kicks their ass.” It might be financial obligations that create difficulty, or relationships, or anything that anyone might face in their normal lives. But they’ve been pre-conditioned that any slip is the end of the line, and once they have a failure — any failure, they see it as a catastrophic validation of their “failure” status. Often, that’s all it takes to return them to old ways, and eventually they may wind up back behind bars.
This is a terribly immobilizing perspective. Any possible success requires the willingness and ability to try something, possibly not succeed, learn something, and then try again. Many of life’s greatest lessons are learned in the wake of a failed attempt, but those lessons are worth nothing if that attempt is the only one. Worse yet is the option of avoiding failure entirely by not trying anything at all.
The fear of failure is a big lie. And not just for the formerly incarcerated, it’s true for everyone. If you haven’t even started something it’s an “unknown”, and I believe that this is what we are most afraid of. The unknown is, well — we don’t really know, do we? And it’s something different every time. Sometimes it’s great, and sometimes not so great, but you have to be willing to assume some risk to even have a chance of getting to great.
I think it would be worthwhile to avoid using the word “failure” at all. Perhaps it could be replaced with a more neutral “not successful yet”, or another euphemism with a more positive spin. Unless the goal is to be cynical and defeatist — and why would you do that since it’s not going to help anyway — it makes more sense to use semantics that convey hope and positivity for the future.
There is a limitless availability of success for each of us. There is never any lack, and there is no need to suffer needless shame or guilt if things don’t always go exactly according to plan. If you want to achieve any goal, the most important thing is to be willing to try — and if things don’t go perfectly the first time, to be willing to try again.
Now go out there and try to do something great.