Most of us falsely believe in the permanence of failure.
We assume that if we experienced one great mistake, one terrible tragedy, we would forever be sunk. Our career over, our reputation ruined, and our future kaput.
But when has that ever happened? When was the last time a single decision destroyed you, totally messed up everything? It doesn’t happen. And yet we are still deathly afraid that it might.
That needs to stop. And it needs to stop now.
How failure happens
Every epic fail is the result of bad habits practiced over time. One poor decision leads to another and so on until, before you know it, you’re walking down a road you never intended to be on.
This is how addictions happen, how relationships end, and how the world goes to hell. That is, slowly.
We become what we are by practicing. By slowly exerting effort over time until it becomes natural. Habitual, even.
Nothing happens, as it turns out, by accident. No consistent failure comes to us and no fear is realized that we didn’t have some part in creating.
“You are — your life, and nothing else.” —Jean-Paul Sartre
We see this every day: in friends unwilling to change, in our own stubbornness or compulsions, in the growing number of people medicating their own anxiety. We fail over time, never at once.
But at any given point, you can turn around. You can begin again.
The power of resurrection
There’s something powerful about a second chance. I should know; I’ve had about a thousand of them.
There’s something liberating about starting over, about seeing something you thought was dead come back to life (unless, of course, you’re watching Pet Sematary—then it’s just plain creepy).
After a resurrection, we always appreciate life more.
When I learned one decision couldn’t ruin my life, that I had more “Get Out of Jail Free” cards than I thought, I was finally free. To take more risks. To put myself out there. To fail.
Fear becomes a distant apprehension instead of a familiar anxiety when we have the assurance that failure won’t kill us. Yes, it comes and it’s inconvenient, but you will survive. And because of this knowledge, you can risk and trust and grow.
For me, there is still the occasional fear—the fear of failure or fear of being rejected—but it’s more a reverential awe than a haunting of the soul.
When I attempt something, I respect the possibility that it might not work, that there is real risk in the endeavor. And this drives me to succeed.
Fear tells me what I’m doing is worthwhile, because it could fail.
A little taste of heaven
Success is not guaranteed, but failure is. You will fall short of some goals, your dreams won’t always come true, and you will eventually die.
So that’s our baseline. We can all agree on that, yes? If those are our definites, here’s what we don’t know: what will you do with today? How hard you will go? What will you sacrifice? And what, pray tell, will you do with failure?
Will it keep you from starting over or fuel your desire to go again?
This is what makes any game worth playing and every life worth living—it doesn’t last forever. There’s a cost not only to win, but just to play. You could get hurt or disowned by your loved ones or just plain embarrassed.
But when you win, and sometimes you do, the rewards taste that much sweeter because of all you endured to arrive at paradise.
“Everybody wants to go to heaven. Nobody wants to die.” —Albert King
This is the beauty of falling on our faces and getting back up. It’s the liberation we need to do great work. Without the risk, the rise to the top doesn’t feel like much of an ascent.
You can’t really win without loss, and success feels small when there’s nothing at stake.
So what do we do? Learn to love the risk and accept the inevitable failure that comes with every great pursuit.
Not everything is temporary
Failure fades. That’s the good news.
You can always try a different approach, take another stab at the problem, move to a foreign country, date somebody new, or start over with your manuscript.
This feeling of falling short won’t last forever; it eventually goes away. What does last, though, is your perseverance and the impact you create by not giving up.
Your successes and failures, even accolades and critiques, are all short-lived in the grand scheme of the cosmos. But some things are eternal.
Anyone can lead a safe, comfortable life, free from failing. But where is the fun in that? Where is the glory, the legacy?
It’s in the very thing you’re avoiding: the risky moments.
When you play a bigger game, one that involves danger and potential failure, you place yourself amongst history’s heroes. You walk the halls of legend. You become a myth.
“Pain heals. Chicks dig scars. Glory… lasts forever.” —Shane Falco, “The Replacements”
This is where we discover the thrill of doing something that matters—in the midst of failure.
Sure, you’ll mess up and miss the boat; you’ll say something dumb or get told you have nothing of value to offer. You may even screw up so badly you have to change your name and move to Idaho.But even then, you must endure and remember:
This is not the end; you are not yet finished.
This hiccup is another leg in the journey, a reminder you are still alive. This game is not yet over. Which means you’ve got at least one more chance to make your dent in the universe.
Just don’t forget the most important part of leaving a legacy, of achieving success that lives on long after you’re gone:
You can not quit.