I don’t know about you, but I can’t stand failure.
You know why?
Because Lord knows, I’m a horrid perfectionist.
Because I struggle admitting when I’m wrong or admitting when I’ve made a mistake.
But that may not be the sole reason why… rather, our family of origin and our culture of origin may have a lot to do with it.
“Failure is not an option.”
We as Americans have been taught from the beginning of time that failure is not an option. Heck, even Gene Krantz (as played by Ed Harris in the film by the same catch phrase) probably was repeating something the film writers had been subversively taught when he made that phrase famous in 1995.
The media tells us that failures mean nothing. Failures have no spot in history. No one knows who came in second in sports tournaments. People only remember the victors.
No one cares about the first loser, the first failure.
Notably, however, most view failure as simply a bump in the road.
The American perspective on failure is not quite as catastrophic as some other cultures and the perception of failure. As a result, the way we view failure, truly depends on our family and/or culture of origin.
For instance, in many of the Asian countries, failure spells certain doom, particularly in the business world. This is primarily because of the loss of “face.”
The idea of “saving face” in the Asian world is a powerful one. “Face” is often seen as how people view you. In order to save face, you must do as you say. Thus, failure is often seen as a failure to do as you say.
In the Muslim world, there is a similar perspective on failure. The focus there is on the relationships that you build with others, and there is “little room for experimentation or failure.”
As Sue Bryant notes, “The more conservative the culture, the less tolerance for failure.”
Another interesting cultural note is the Latin American view on failure. For most Mexican families, the concept of failure is simply not tolerated. Similar to the Asian perspective, the loss of face is not something allowed.
European countries and cultures are a bit of a wild card. Germany, for instance, is significantly risk-averse culturally. Failure isn’t something that is seen as a good thing. Often seen as “weak and inefficient,” failure is something that is not often seen in this influential country in Europe.
Notably, with most Americans having roots in Europe, it’s interesting to consider your own family of origin and how they view failure.
Did your parents encourage trial and error? Or rather did they demand perfection on the first try?
Did they see poor grades in school as a place to grow or did they see them as reflective of them and their job as parents?
However your family of origin viewed failure, your perspective on it now is a direct result of a combination of that and the way the media and the mainstream American perspective sees it.
After a lifetime of that kind of input, it’s no wonder that most of us struggle with failure.
Knowing When to Fold
Sometimes, when I realize I need to admit defeat, when I realize I was wrong, I clam up. I just can’t do it.
I get defiant. I get defensive.
It’s really not a healthy way to live life. I throw things back in the face of the person pointing out the error or the mistake. I get angry.
But eventually, I do figure out how to pull myself together and finally admit I was wrong.
You know how?
I simply realize and remember three important things:
1. I am human.
To be human is to fail. There is not a person on the planet who hasn’t experience some sort of failure or hasn’t been affected to some extent by failure.
When you fail, it’s important to remember this simple, but all too easily forgotten fact, “I am human.”
Failure is a part of life. We will fail at something every single day. It may not be catastrophic or something that puts your name (or your company) in the headlines, but you will do something that you see as a failure.
Whether it’s not doing well on an exam or yelling at your kid out of frustration or not getting that Excel spreadsheet done on time, you will fail.
I don’t say this to demean you or remind you of those failures.
I simply say it to remind myself that I am human.
To be human is to err.
2. Errors and failure are part of the learning process.
Connected to the first point is the reminder that errors are part of the learning process. No one ever learned to ride a bike without falling down at least one.
(If you say you learned to ride a bike without falling down, you’re either lying or you should join the circus.)
Either way, failures and mistakes are part of the process. We learn what does and doesn’t work.
Thomas Edison was a prime example of someone who tried and failed, over and over again, in his invention of the light bulb.
Henry Ford, the inventor of the Model T, said, “Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.” How very well put.
Failures give us extra information. They tell us how NOT to do something. They give us more information on how to try to do something next time.
If that chemical solution that you just mixed together blew up in your face, consider the last thing you put in the mixture. Maybe that is something you may want to change next time.
If that merger failed, consider the people in the merger. Consider the two cultures, be it actual cultures or business cultures. How are they alike? How are they different? How might that have played into it?
Failure gives us information. Failure helps us learn.
3. Mistakes make me a better person.
While failures can often help us determine what to do next, failure often also helps us become better people.
Those who have failed time and time again have learned about the importance of grit and determination.
Consider Thomas Edison again.
What would have happened if he had given up after the 999th time experimenting with how to create a light bulb? We may not have had electric lights as quickly as we did.
Consider Henry Ford.
If he had quit experimenting with the Model T, we may not have had cars as soon as we did or the technology we have now.
Consider someone like Abraham Lincoln.
He advocated for the release of slaves and, as a result, was an indirect catalyst for the Civil War. Slavery may have been a part of United States history for much longer without his boldness in running for president and acting on what he believed in, despite the possibility of failing.
Failures make history, even if the history books don’t say they do.
After processing through these and doing that general reminder, I often find myself more ready to admit defeat. I find myself more ready to consider the chain of events, analyze what went wrong, and find a solution the next time.
As Thomas Edison once said, “I haven’t failed. I’ve just found 1000 ways that it won’t work.”
When you don’t want to admit defeat, do this instead.
Remember you’re human.
Remember failure is part of the learning process.
And remember that failure is a chance to make yourself a better person.