Imagine success as a ten-rung ladder: nine of the rungs are going to be failures and only the tenth one will lead you to eventual success. But does that mean the first nine were a waste of time?
Absolutely not. Society has warped our perspective and trapped us in the illusion of safety. We have begun to believe that “failure” is a negative word, something to be avoided at all costs. We have been brainwashed into thinking that if we don’t try, we can’t fail. But not failing doesn’t mean automatically succeeding; it just means you’re too afraid to try to succeed.
Real success is roughly composed of nine parts failure, one part success. It’s like the tip of the iceberg that everyone can see, while the actual mass of the iceberg stays submerged. In our case, the base of the iceberg called success is actually the long-term effort that went into achieving it, the little failures you accumulated along the way, and the persistence you showed when things went sideways on the path to your goal.
These are things people ignore when they talk about someone’s “overnight success”, but in doing so, they reinforce the false belief that success is easy, and that failure is an anomaly. Because of this toxic attitude toward failure, so many of us are either afraid to go for our big dreams, or we are too ashamed to try again after our first few attempts.
Counter-intuitive as it sounds, failure is actually a sign of progress. If you can learn to reinterpret it as such, it will become your best friend and lead you to the fulfilment of your greatest desires. So let’s explore some of the ways you can use failure to propel you toward your dreams.
Failure is natural
Failure is nothing but a normal part of the learning process. When you are trying to change a habit or learn a new skill, you probably won’t get everything right the first time. Say you’re learning to play the piano; chances are that you’ll make a lot of mistakes during the first few weeks, and then slowly correct them either through self-assessment or feedback from an instructor. It takes time to create new connections in the brain and let the old ones fall away. Remembering this allows you to be patient with the process, and when you are patient, you are far more likely to persist.
Think of a baby learning to walk or speak. If the baby makes a mistake, no adult in their right mind would ever say, “This child is such a failure.” Why? Because failing is a natural part of learning. Although we remember the regularity of failure when we’re dealing with children (or when we’re young ourselves), as we grow up we begin to buy into the false idea that “failing” makes us a failure.
In reality, the failing process is the learning process.
Failure equals feedback
Failure is feedback. It points out whether the strategy we are using is working or not. For example, if your math assignment comes back with a bad grade, you can either look at it as a failure, or you can look at it as an opportunity to learn where you went wrong. Maybe you’ll realise that you need to study more, or that you need to revise a particular concept and do more practice questions based on it.
A helpful concept to remember here is the growth mindset: the belief that our abilities are not fixed; they can be improved with effort, time, practice and the right resources. In the example above, if you feel that none of your own strategies are working, you may need to enlist the help of a friend who knows the subject more than you do. If that doesn’t work, you would then ask your teacher to point out how you can get better at it.
Failure as a signal
Sometimes, failure means that you are not as invested in a goal as you would like to believe. And that is okay. This often happens when you’re simply pursuing a goal because you see other people going after it and reaping great rewards. Deep down, you may not really want those goals and rewards, which may mean that you aren’t actually putting in enough effort to achieve them. Failure, in this case, becomes a priceless opportunity to ask yourself, “Am I really committed to this goal or just pursuing it for superficial reasons?”
If the answer is the latter, you need to shift your goal. If, on the other hand, you find that you’re on the right track toward your true dreams, then failure is simply a test of the strength of your desires.
Focus on effort, not outcome
Measure your successes by the effort you put in, not by the results you get. This prevents you from being discouraged by the lack of instant results, while ensuring that you will persevere in the pursuit of your goals. It also means that instead of fretting about the future, you will direct your energies into taking action and action is the only thing that brings you closer to your dreams.
So if, for example, you participated in a school competition and didn’t win the first time, don’t despair. Try again next year. As long as you focus on improvement and learning, sooner or later you will accomplish your goal.
Leverage your emotions
Courage happens when there are no guarantees of succeeding. The next time you’re trying something new, or something that involves the risk of failure, remind yourself that you’re being courageous. Tap into the pride of that statement.
And in the process of pursuing your big dreams, if you do end up failing, so what? You can be proud of yourself for how hard you worked, how much you learned, the resolve you exhibited and the humility you developed through the experience. There is pride in sharing the story of how many times you fell down on your way up; imagine being at the top of your own ladder of success one day and looking back to tell the world, “Ah, yes, I tried, I failed again and again, and then I won.”
Deal with the critics
Sometimes, what keeps us stuck is the fear of what others would think of our so-called failures. In such a situation, remember that you are at least trying to achieve something huge even if the people around you are criticising you for it. Also remember that the only people who judge others for going after big dreams are those who are too afraid to do the same in their own lives.
As Theodore Roosevelt said, the critics judging from the sidelines do not matter; what matters is the courage demonstrated by the person who is out there actually doing the hard things.
Some well-known “failures”
One of the best ways to change your attitude toward failure is to get to know about people who have gone through it and shared their experiences. Some of my favourite examples include:
J. K. Rowling
In her Harvard commencement address, Rowling talks about “the fringe benefits of failure”. Among them she mentions how her failures left her free to pursue what she really wanted. Once she had failed at everything else in her life, she gave herself permission to focus all her energies on her passion, finishing the book that would become Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.
If she had succeeded at a so-called normal life, Harry Potter would not exist today. Rowling’s speech, easily available online, is one of the most inspiring reflections on the topic of persistence and failure.
Einstein is among the most famous scientists of all times, which is all the more surprising when you consider his life story. He had a difficult relationship with his schooling, he failed his entrance exam to the Zurich Polytechnic School, and, on top of that, he was considered a failure by his own father. It took him years to get an academic position after finally graduating.
And yet, he not only persisted through all the obstacles but went on to win the Nobel Prize in Physics and develop the theory of relativity.
When Steve Jobs was fired from Apple, it left him devastated. Instead of lamenting his “failure” or his mistakes, however, he decided to turn them into fuel for his success. He founded his own company called NeXT and later created the phenomenon that is Pixar, which eventually got him back at Apple where he was able to transform the sinking organisation into a success.
In hindsight it’s hard to imagine that Steve Jobs had actually “failed”, but that is how someone on the outside would have interpreted the events at the time.
So ask yourself: Could your greatest failure potentially contain the seed of your greatest success?
Jack Ma is one of China’s wealthiest people. He’s also a philanthropist, and the founder of the Alibaba Group, one of the world’s biggest e-commerce companies. But when he was first trying to build his career, he failed his entrance exam to the Hangzhou Teacher’s Institute twice. He was later rejected from at least 30 jobs he applied for. Not only that, his application to Harvard was rejected ten times! With his cheerful attitude and inspiring tenacity, he is the epitome of success achieved through massive failures.
According to Ma, “If you don’t give up, you still have a chance. Giving up is the greatest failure.”
Coelho’s book The Alchemist has sold more than 65 million copies. It also holds the Guinness World Record for the most translated book by a living author. The irony is that when it was first published, it actually failed to sell a decent number of copies.
Coelho, who deeply believed in himself and his book, was not discouraged. He managed to spark the interest of another publisher, and The Alchemist went on to become a wildly bestselling phenomenon. The book is a tale of great failures, great disappointments, and eventual glory. In fact, if you read The Alchemist, you can see that Coelho’s own courage and persistence are woven into the narrative itself.
Now that you know how you can use your failures to pave your path to success, why not put these lessons into practice? Make a list of five or ten things you’ve always wanted to try, but never did because of the fear of failing. Then go through the list and pick the one thing that feels most exciting, and take the first step toward making it happen.
Remember, success is directly tied to failure. If you want to succeed more, fail more!
Published in Dawn, Young World, September 11th, 2020