The power of failure

Jeff - Austin, Texas
Entered on February 13, 2009
Age Group: 50 - 65

This I believe

I’m the type of person that is always looking for inspirational quotes, for my own use and to share with my kids. So this one from American author William Sarovan really struck me, because it makes me think about one of the key paradoxes of life. He said, “Good people are good because they’ve come to wisdom through failure.” I really like the contrast between goodness and failure.

We as a society often look at failure as weakness. If you fail, you were not good enough. And for many people that might be true. The second place finisher in a race just wasn’t fast enough. The guy at work that didn’t get the promotion he wanted just wasn’t talented enough. I can think of a million examples. But failure can be both a powerfully destructive force and an even more powerful motivator. It all depends on what a person does with it.

My daughter is an amazing soccer player, and as any proud parent I think she is perhaps the best one on her team. So when she comes off the field upset because she didn’t think she played well, or her team lost, or she didn’t score on her shots, my natural urge is to placate her. “You really played a great game,” I always say. “I’m proud that you gave it your best.” And like any parent I want her to feel better. But the fact of the matter is that she might have missed that shot and could have done better, or her team really did lose.

So I’m worried about this. Self esteem is an important thing, but let’s face it – everyone in the world is not smart, beautiful, talented, or wise, or a snappy dresser with good hair. Every sports player can’t be the best at their game. Every mother or father can’t be entirely perfect.

Failure, it seems, is a part of all of us, whether we acknowledge or not. So the question is, what do you do with it. Far too many use it as an excuse or a crutch. “I’m not good because I had a difficult childhood,” they say. “I can’t exceed because I came from a poor background.” “I didn’t make the goal because Susan didn’t pass me the ball.”

I’ve failed a lot in my life, and self-recrimination is a real bitch. I’ve wondered why I didn’t get that promotion, or why I’m not smarter about things. Why I don’t avoid the behaviors that I know yield the wrong results. But in the cold light of day, I realize it’s me. It is how I accept failure and learn from it. So today it stops. Today I embrace failure, both for what it teaches me and the unavoidable nature of its existence. I will continue to fail. But I will embrace – even enjoy – the valuable lessons it will teach me. And I want to instill this in my daughter too. So when she comes off the soccer field with tears in her eyes, I’ll give her a hug and say, “OK, what are you going to do different next time so you won’t have to feel this way again?”