I Choose to Call My Failure by Another Name — Success

Editor’s note: This piece is part of our “Failure Series,” where we examine the messy and difficult work of creating equitable systems. The ‘F’ word has a bad rep in global health, but the truth is we all fail. We encouraged Global Health Corps’ community members to share their own stories of failure to help inspire a culture where setbacks aren’t end points, but merely milestones on the way to progress. Enjoy!

If you’d like to join a community of changemakers who embrace failure as part of the process of changing the world, apply to be a Global Health Corps fellow today at ghcorps.org/apply.

In my younger days, I had the opportunity to attend a number of graduation ceremonies, and I often wondered why the hosts centered their speeches on their failures. I was there to celebrate success, and I wrote off the speeches as cliche attempts to make every person who was considered a “failure” feel like they will make it one day.

I personally cringe at the thought of failure and don’t even like to hear the word uttered. The reality is that I find myself failing so many times, and I count my failures more than I count my blessings. My failed goals, dreams, and friendships haunt me; even now the fear that I will fail to finish this blog post is haunting me.

Failure seems to always linger around the corner, and when I sense it nearby I find myself being very calculative. I ask myself how bad it could get and what impact it could have on me if it were to happen, and then I do everything I can to try to prevent it from happening. Despite these efforts, I have still failed in many circumstances (surprising, I know!).

One hard lesson that I am learning is that failure builds my resilience. While fear of failing is sometimes protective and keeps me from not making silly mistakes, but mostly the fear of failure holds me back. The zeal that drives me now is birthed out of my failures; the same failures that seemed to break me at the time have made me a better person and taught me to dance in the rain.

What if we all took the time to celebrate our failures for the gifts that they are? In October last year, I applied for a programme that would benefit me in my work in the humanitarian aid field. I was very confident that this programme was meant for me and thought I was through one of those good seasons where everything is YES, YES, YES…. but lo and behold it turned out to be a NO.

The rejection notice broke my heart — I had my heart completely set on this programme and the school that was offering it. In light of the rejection, I catastrophized and blamed; I counted my many failures and then speculated that the decision was not well-thought through. In fact I wanted to appeal it; “these people had to have missed a thing or two!” I thought to myself. After days of trying to think of my next plan, I resolved to move on in the hopes of something better working out, believing that I was rejected for a good reason.

Through this experience, one thing that stood out for me was that I was mastering the art of bouncing back to my feet. I began to realize that celebrating my failures was much healthier than I had ever imagined.

A few days went by and life was pretty much static. I anticipated nothing and did not try to console myself again because I knew it would be a while before anything else worked out. I slowly started to research and apply for similar programmes. After sending in a whole bunch of applications, I was selected for a programme that I barely thought I qualified for. I was so delighted at this but I kept wondering why I had been accepted to this particular programme at this particular time. Through this experience, one thing that stood out for me was that I was mastering the art of bouncing back to my feet. I began to realize that celebrating my failures was much healthier than I had ever imagined.

In light of my own experience with failure, the graduation stories I had heard before began to make more sense. Reflecting back on my own and others’ stories of failure has clarified for me that we cannot succeed if we don’t really fail. As Winston Churchill’s word put it, “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” My hope is that we collectively learn to celebrate failure, knowing that what really counts is the aftermath.