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5 Truths About The F-Word

Failure. 

In my world, this has historically been known as “the other f-word”.  Whenever I’ve encountered it, it has felt nasty, unacceptable and like something to be avoided at all costs.  Knowing that for many of you failure is similarly cloaked in energetic “ick”, I want to share a few insights to help you find a new way to be with failure.

Here’s a truth that’s often overlooked in the human pursuit of success:  success in and of itself is only achieved through a series of failures.  It is very, very, VERY rare for true and perfect success to be achieved right out of the gates.  Every great and famous person who is known for having succeeded at anything – Steve Jobs, Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan, Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison – will tell you about the myriad of failures that preceded and surrounded their experience of success.  You actually cannot have one without the other.

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Several years ago, the truth of this idea was hammered home to me in a rather unusual way.  I was seeking feedback from selected individuals within my professional and personal circles for the purposes of redefining my own direction.  This is something I do periodically, leaning in to the wisdom of trusted colleagues, teachers, mentors and friends.  I find it gives me some insight into how I’m showing up in the world and how this aligns with my own goals and objectives. 

One of the questions I had asked was, “what is my greatest weakness” (a risky question, for sure; this is why I only ask trusted folks for their thoughts).  One of the answers gave me a real jolt, and was a catalyst for redefining my relationship with failure.  A trusted mentor of mine very simply and astutely said, “Gail’s greatest weakness is that she doesn’t fail well; she tends to let failure take her out of the game.”  Try sticking that in your pipe and smoking it!  I mean all of a sudden, I was a failure at failing; what the heck was I supposed to do with that?

As I sat with his answer, I realized 5 profound truths about the concept of failure.  Each of these has helped me in developing a new relationship with failure:

  1. Failure is neither good, nor bad.  Instead, it is simply part of the learning and growing process.  Success cannot actually be achieved in true measure without having experienced some degree of failure along the way.
  2. Failure is nothing more or less than an opportunity to stop, evaluate, course-correct if necessary, and try again.
  3. Failure may be something you experience, however, it does not – and actually cannot – define you unless you allow it to.  In other words, you are not your failure.  Failure is an experience, not a condition.
  4. One can actually “fail” with grace. 
  5. While failure is never comfortable, avoiding it actually decreases the odds of you being able to achieve success.  If you truly want to succeed you have to be willing to embrace failure as part of the journey.

Discovering these truths has been liberating.  While failure continues to be part of my experience, in those moments when I feel my frustration rising and seeds of doubt grappling to take root, I can slowly shift to a more empowering perspective.  I can remember that failure need not be a bad or scary thing.  Instead, it can simply be part of the experience of working towards something that I want to achieve.

Bottom-line:  if you want to be successful, you’ve got to understand that failure will be part of your experience.  True success can only be achieved and appreciated when you stretch out of your comfort zone, which implies risking failure.  Failure is not a bad thing; it’s not the antithesis of success.  Instead, it’s the precursor to success.