Why Failure is Mandatory for Success
You can succeed at big goals, but you must learn to overcome the paralyzing fear of defeat
Just as I was approaching the end of my talk at a large conference, I missed a slide. I was so focused on what I was saying that my brain took a few seconds to understand what was happening. That had never happened in my countless practice sessions. Of course, it had to happen as I faced hundreds of people.
It took what felt like several minutes (but I’m sure it was less than one) for me to collect my thoughts and resume the presentation. I left the stage, sank back in my seat, and contemplated my failure.
But as the day went on, the unexpected happened. I was approached by people who saw me present and I realised that no one picked up on my mistake. They might have seen that I stumbled, or maybe thought that I was nervous. But the slide mix-up remained unnoticed; no one looked at those slides as closely as I did.
As a result of that conference, I was invited to speak at other events, and people reached out to me to say how much they had enjoyed my presentation. I couldn’t believe it. All I could think about was how I had failed. But others noticed the content and the message.
We are, of course, much harder on ourselves than anyone else.
What I learned on that day wasn’t that I should practice more, write better notes, or work on my presentation skills. That is part of the trade. Here’s the thing with failure: the lessons we learn through failing are not usually what we expect them to be. If we already knew what we would learn, we wouldn’t have to fail at all.
Failing teaches us the unexpected, which is why it’s such a rich learning practice.
Mistakes Are a Path for Learning
We ruminate about what we said to a colleague and how we could have phrased it better. We relive conversations in our heads, imagining how much more eloquent we could have been. We even check emails after we send them, wondering if the recipient will think that last sentence wasn’t as friendly as it could have been.
Everyone else is doing the same thing, but focusing on their own lives. No one else is imagining what you could have said better for any significant amount of time. Just you.
Very few are those whose failure shapes their lives in the eyes of others. Monica Lewinsky speaks (and jokes) about it in her TED talk. But that is a rare example. That one time you interrupted someone and then obsessed about it for a week is long forgotten by everyone else.
If no one cares about your mistakes, you have the freedom to fail time and again and learn from it, in the knowledge that, at the end of the day, you will be the only one looking back at what happened. Instead of thinking of the mistake, we can reflect on what we’ve learned.
Mistakes are a pathway for learning.
Research shows that students develop a greater understanding of mathematical concepts when they try to solve problems before being taught how to do it, even if they make more mistakes. This teaching method is known as “productive failure,” and it can work as well as more traditional methods in which students learn the theory before practising.
This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t prepare, work hard, and do the best we can. Of course, we should. That is how learning happens: the lessons won’t be as interesting if we’re simply not doing a good job.
The people who saw me mix up the slides during my presentation didn’t think about it twice (or at all). How many presentations do you remember from the conferences you’ve attended? Getting positive feedback on my presentation reminded me that you can do well, even when you make mistakes. You can only really succeed after many.
Fear of Failure and Procrastination
Even if we realise that failure contributes to learning, it’s natural not to want to fail. When we procrastinate on what is important to us, it may be because we’re afraid of failing.
Things often don’t turn out how we plan. And knowing that reaching for our dreams will be difficult and we may fail can be pretty scary.
So we never take the first step. We daydream but don’t act. We watch those who achieve their goals and marvel at their success, impressed, sometimes envious. We never let ourselves be surprised at what may happen if we try, even if it’s not what we imagined.
No matter how much we think about something, it is never the same as doing it. Our brains can create the most vivid stories, but the only way to find out is by taking action.
When we spend a lot of time imagining scenarios, we’re using creativity in the wrong place: we can instead choose to focus our imagination into getting things done.
The First Step Is the Hardest
In biology, homeostasis is the tendency of living systems to maintain an optimum equilibrium and resist change.
Applied to our daily lives, this concept explains why we carry on doing what we’ve done before, rather than trying something different. We stay in the job we don’t like because it is stable, we watch another series on Netflix because it’s what we do every evening. In prehistoric times, eating the same food and sticking to the beaten path could ensure survival. Our brains are programmed to prefer repetition to change.
Change takes effort. That, combined with fear of failure, means that getting started is often the most difficult part whenever we decide to try anything new.
One of my favourite productivity tools is just getting started. Making a start right now, and allowing yourself to stop after five minutes if you have to, more often than not, is all it takes. I often find myself finishing something I didn’t want to do much faster than I expected, simply because I managed to get started, and once I did, I realised it wasn’t that bad.
The practice of getting started is a game-changer in productivity. If we do it again and again, we can learn to overcome the urge to procrastinate. It is a practice that has completely changed how I address some of my challenges: before they become too great in my head, I take the first step.
Not Acting is Already Failing
Not taking action may look like self-preservation. By not trying, we can’t fail. But the opposite is also true: by never trying, we simply cannot succeed. While we avoid failure, we also avoid success. Paradoxically, a fear of failure ensures that we don’t succeed by never trying.
It’s easy to believe that everyone is happy, achieving their goals, and has life nailed when all you see are the snippets of life on social media. No one wants to share the failures, the daily grind, and the self-doubt. But we all experience it.
Everyone else is failing too.
A study shows that resilient entrepreneurs are more successful in the long-term, and usually, that is not because they fail less. Their ability to use failure in learning plays a part in their success:
“For those resilient entrepreneurs who are able to surpass the affective impact of negative past entrepreneurial experience, business failure may encourage learning without dampening motivation.”
And it has also been suggested that organisations learn more from failure than success. Accepting that failure is the perfect learning opportunity, it is easier to take a chance.
The Importance Trap
“The more an activity really matters to you, the more you start to believe you need focus, energy and long stretches of uninterrupted time in which to do it, things that, you tell yourself, you currently lack. And so the less likely you are to do it. Unimportant stuff gets done; important stuff doesn’t” — Oliver Burkeman
Long-term goals and dreams often seem too great. We don’t know enough to complete that big project, we can’t access the right level of investment to start a new business, or we don’t have time to do it. There will never be a perfect time to start anything significant. Anything which requires a lot of change, time, and effort, will always be difficult.
Yet we accomplish plenty of mundane tasks in less-than-perfect conditions. We work when we’re tired, bored, annoyed, or need a break. But we don’t want to spoil the magic of our imaginary projects with the realities of real life.
What is most important should get done even when life is messy — because it always is. In the long run, this practice creates a life that is aligned with our purpose. Putting our aspirations off means stealing the opportunity of a better future from ourselves.
Embracing Failure As Part of Success
Kobe Bryant missed more shots than anyone else at the NBA. Some of these changed the results of important games. But we remember him as one of the best basketball players of all time. In fact, it is said that his failures directly contributed to his astounding success.
Instead of thinking about the shots he missed, Kobe diligently practised more than anyone else. He recognised that he couldn’t avoid failure, but he could work to improve and be the best that he could be. This is not a unique example, as research shows that athletes are more likely to succeed when they take a positive outlook to failure.
Embracing failure as part of growth helps shift the focus from losing to learning. Failure is one step of many. We may not see it at the moment, but failure is part of success.
The Practice of Failing Regularly
It can be hard to embrace failure if we’re focusing on the big ambitions we’d like to pursue. A good practice ground is adding experimentation to daily life.
Jia Jiang, in his popular TED talk, talks about his experience of actively pursuing rejection for 100 days. I do something similar: every month, I focus on a new skill, hobby, or habit to see what I learn.
These fun projects can be large or small, but the smaller projects tend to be the richest: by focusing on something meaningless for a month, I create a safe space for failing and learning, making it easier to take risks and experiment. There’s always something new in my life.
These are some recent failed experiments and what I learned from them:
- Green tea taught me to be present: I decided to learn to enjoy green tea. Not just drink it but enjoy the taste. I drank it every day for one month, tried different types, and learned about preparation methods. I still don’t enjoy it. But I developed a contemplative practice that changed the pace of my days and my understanding of what it means to be present.
- Crow pose made me stronger: I have lost count of how many yoga teachers have told me that anyone can master crow pose. I practised it diligently for one month, trying different methods and techniques. And I failed. I’m nowhere near mastering crow pose. But I gained strength and balance in the process, and my yoga practice is better overall.
- Learning Japanese keeps me connected with my favourite place: I decided to learn Japanese. I knew it would be hard. But it’s not hard, it’s impossible. I know how to say “she,” but not “he.” I know the numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 7, and 8. I’m not any good at Japanese, but I’ve learned that simply hearing the language keeps me close to the culture of my favourite country.
- Spin cycling taught me that you can have fun while you fail: A spin class is the type of thing that terrifies me, but I tried it anyway. While the trainer says that you should only focus on your performance and that the huge screen showing your position is “not a leaderboard,” being last by a long margin is not cool. But weirdly, I found it fun. I knew I couldn’t compete with the others, but I could still enjoy myself.
Making space for failing in small ways is great practice for learning and developing resilience. When we’re used to failing, we’re more prepared for when failure inevitably happens in other areas of our lives.
A Life of Purpose is Filled With Adventure And, Inevitably, Failure
Hollywood tells us that hardship is followed by inevitable success. We like seeing the hard work pay off, there is fairness in good overcoming bad. So we expect that when we put in the hard work, we will succeed.
Sadly, that is not always the case. For every successful footballer, thousands of hard-working athletes never make it. For every astronaut, there are plenty of pilots who train for decades and never get to space.
Dreaming high may set us up for failure, and that is not necessarily bad. Even if we fail, it’s the process of working towards our dreams that matters. By pursuing what is most important to us, we’re not only making our aspirations more real: we’re living a life of purpose.
Even if you don’t run that marathon, by training every day, you will become healthier and fitter. If the novel you wanted to write never sees the light of day, by writing regularly you bring creativity into your routine.
When we realise that there is value in the pursuit, success is not the only thing that matters.
The experience itself is worth it.
To allow fear of failure to prevent us from ever starting on a journey towards our dreams is a waste of potential. There will be many adventures that we never get to live if we don’t take the first step.
When I reflect on the people who I admire, I think about those who give meaning to their lives. A driver in India who carefully decorated his tuk-tuk, bringing pride to his work and joy to his clients. The lady who welcomed me to her Airbnb in the Peloponnese with the most wonderful dish of aubergine and potatoes that she cooked especially.
There are many different ways to be successful, but all of them involve giving your best, no matter how small the pursuit.
When I look back at my failures, I don’t think about the things I didn’t achieve. I think about the life I get to live because I choose to explore and expand. I’m not afraid of failing, I’m more concerned about never getting to experience the magic that happens when we allow ourselves to take the first step, without knowing where it will take us.