Yes, Failure IS an Option
I don’t know about you, but I hate failure.
At least I used to.
I have really high expectations for myself. I dream big dreams. I want to dominate the world, as my friend Meg says.
But it doesn’t always work like that. In fact, many times I fall way short of the stratospheric mark I set for myself.
I guess I’m too inspired by those who say, “Failure is not an option.” Sounds great, right? Even heroic. But the stakes are higher than the odds at a Vegas casino when you’re down to your last dollar.
Failure is and always has been an option. One I’ve exercised more than I want to.
Maybe you have, too.
I’m here to tell you not to worry about it.
Yeah, you heard me. Don’t worry about it.
The day I decided to kick worry to the curb failure lost its power over me.
If you’re tired of riding the emotional rollercoaster of success and failure, allow me to offer you an alternative.
What does failure really mean?
There’s a boatload of emotional baggage around success and failure.
We have romantic notions about what it means to be a success. Lots of money. Living in your dream home in the city, on the beach, or on a mountain top. All the friends you could ever want at your beck and call. Maybe even a team of servants that do everything mundane you don’t want to do.
That’s pretty romantic, right?
We dramatize failure just as much.
A business failure means that life as you know it is over. A job loss means shame, downsizing your expectations, and having to settle for less. It moves you to avoid your friends, your family, and nosy neighbors who might ask how you’re doing.
How success and failure look to you depends on your emotional paintbrush.
Let’s put the baggage aside for a moment.
What do the words success and failure mean? Here is the most simple, unadorned definitions I could find. They might even seem so simple it’s ridiculous. I share them because I want to see what’s left when you take all the added expectations away.
Success means the accomplishment of an aim or purpose.
Failure means the lack of success.
Set a goal.
Work for it.
Hit it and you succeed.
Miss and you fail.
Since we are emotional creatures, subject to joy and pain, let’s frame this a little better.
Instead of just having an achievement mindset, why not see yourself as a scientist?
If you hated science in school, relax. I’m not suggesting you study biology, chemistry, physics, or anything like that.
You will employ a bit of psychology, though.
To illustrate, here’s an example from your history lessons.
Edison’s relentless pursuit of the perfect light bulb
Thomas Edison didn’t invent the first electric light bulb.
He did spend a year or more to improve it.
Humphry Davy invented the first electric light in 1809. It consisted of a carbon wire connected to a battery by two wires. The carbon glowed and there was light.
70 years later Thomas Edison started working with existing technology, looking for ways to improve it. He did thousands of experiments over the next year. His goal? To make a light that would last longer than a few hours so people could use it in their homes.
When he started his bulb lasted 40 hours. A year later, he patented a bulb that lasted 1200 hours.
In 1991, Philips invented a light bulb that lasts 60,000 hours.
You can always do it better.
Are you willing to be a relentless experimenter?
Here are four steps that will move you forward.
Stir people emotionally.
If you want dinner, you can’t just fill a pot with noodles and water and set it on the stove.
You’ve got to add some heat.
Those raw, dry noodles aren’t tasty. You’ve got to manipulate them to eat them. Make them soft. Add some sauce. Maybe sprinkle some parmesan or garlic on top.
It’s the same with people.
We all want to think we’re logical creatures. And we are. But it’s not logic that moves us. We go to the gym because we want to feel healthy. We want to impress our friends. And we want the good feeling that better health will give us.
We use logic to back up the choices our emotions make for us.
So off we go to pump iron, run on the treadmill, and sweat on the stairmaster. Sure, we know it will be painful (another emotion). But we know the payoff will be grand.
It’s an investment in success.
Stirring people’s emotions doesn’t have to be manipulative. The best, most sincere way to do this is simple. Show them how it will benefit them. Get them excited about a better life, a better experience, or a bigger contribution. If you can connect what you do with what they want most, everybody wins.
Become a passionate experimenter.
I took a personality test once that typed me as an Explorer.
I do like to walk trails and explore out in nature. But as far as thrill-seeking like jumping out of airplanes at 30,000 feet, count me out.
I do like intellectual explorations. I can follow a rabbit trail to the end of the universe. Get me on Wikipedia and one article will lead to another until the end of time.
The point is exploring is a good thing to do. That’s what experimenting is all about. When you were a kid, you weren’t afraid to experiment. You tested the limits of everything. How long do I have to cry before Mom picks me up? How big a tantrum do I have to throw to get the big colorful ball in that basket?
You never know until you try.
Thinking is just the beginning. You enhance your thinking by giving yourself data to think about — and test some more.
Read and listen to all the experts you want. But don’t just trust them without testing what they say. Will it work for everyone? Will it work for you? Why or why not?
Answer those questions and that wisdom will be your own.
And if you fail along the way, you’ll see it as a learning experience on the way to success.
See your steps as learning experiences, not just emotional experiences.
It’s depressing when things don’t work the way you hope they will.
If Thomas Edison had seen all his experiments as emotional experiences, we might still be using candles to light our homes.
More likely someone with more mental toughness would have invented an electric light.
Don’t get me wrong. Failure can take a toll. When you pour heart and your talent into something that doesn’t work out, you might feel you lost a boxing match with Floyd Mayweather.
I honestly don’t know how much one of Floyd’s punches would hurt me. But I have felt the sucker punch of despair. I have wondered why I’m alive and what good my talents are to anybody. As a young man, I ranted into my afternoon pages about it, day after day.
Then one day something marvelous happened.
While I didn’t see it at the moment, I realized that I was universalizing my pain into blindness. I hurt, so everything was bad. All the doors were closed. Nothing fit.
I then realized I had been looking for opportunity in all the wrong places.
When you go to the shoe store, you don’t expect them all to fit your feet. They can’t. So you try on one pair, and another, and another. You walk across the floor to see how they feel. If they feel good, you buy them.
If they don’t, you leave them on the shelf and forget about them.
Opportunity is a lot like that.
You don’t have to let your emotions run you. See what fits and what doesn’t, then choose wisely.
Keep looking forward.
A few years ago, I made deliveries for a food distributor.
My biggest challenge was finding places I’d never been before.
I had a GPS on my dashboard. And most of the time, it gave good directions. But sometimes, it led me places I had no intention of going.
In Atlanta, there are two Flat Shoals Roads. I learned this when I drove to a new client and found myself 30 miles from my destination. I discovered I was at the wrong place when the GPS led me to a vacant lot next to a park.
Sometimes you’ll take a wrong turn. It happens. If it hasn’t yet, it will. Do you abandon your mission because you’re off the main road?
No. You get new directions.
Concentrate on moving forward. Most paths don’t follow a straight line, especially when you’re blazing a new one.
Consider it a learning experience.
Hold your bigger vision in view. What’s the reward for your perseverance?
Failure is just one of the costs of building something worthwhile.
Your biggest failure might be the best thing that ever happened to you. Don’t let it make you bitter — use it to make you better.
If you’re feeling particularly brave, share your biggest failure in the responses below — and tell us how it made you better.