Why You Need To Fail Before You Succeed

What is our preoccupation with failure? We think the best possible outcome has to come first and all other options are a dent in our soul. Failure is a lack of success and success is a desired outcome. But if you take a step back and look at how many paths you can take to success, you’ll see why you need to fail. A lot.

Why People Hate Failure

Our anxiety comes from a place, however illogical, of self-preservation. We run into a wall and when we discover it’s not a door, we decide to stay in the room. It’s understandable that anything that represents the opposite of success is bad. We’re emotional beings and we want to be happy, and failure doesn’t deliver happiness. However, we need to be careful with this mindset. By attaching our fragile happiness to our overt success, we fuse our ego and self-worth to that happiness, defining ourselves by those actions.

In his book Ego is the Enemy, Ryan Holiday writes, “Impressing people is utterly different from being truly impressive.” We are concerned about what we look like to others, as well as to ourselves. We unconsciously tell ourselves, “If I fail, I am a failure.” We see success and failure on a spectrum, with every step away from success being a step towards failure.

This makes no sense at its core though. Michael Jordan has been quoted thousands of times as saying he’s “missed more than 9000 shots” and “lost almost 300 games”. To be great, first we have to be good; to be good, first we have to be bad. When you remind yourself of that in the face of failure, you can assure yourself that you’re on the right path. The only other option is not trying, which is equal to standing still in life.

What Failure Gives Us

It’s safe to say that everyone reading this has tried something and failed, whether it’s throwing a piece of paper in the trash or shooting a basketball in the hoop. What we get from failure is feedback. Getting feedback about the specific task we are trying to succeed in is like chiseling away on a block of marble until you have a sculpture. You aren’t going to hit the block once and knock everything off but the completed statue of David. You have to chip away piece by piece. Failure is just a response saying, “This particular path and set of circumstances didn’t work.”

The successful comedian Chris Rock doesn’t just come out on stage and tell hilarious jokes to crowds of thousands. He first tries out his jokes in much smaller venues to much smaller crowds, delivering them in an informal setting. What’s more, many of these raw jokes aren’t funny. He tries out hundreds of them on a single night. With the feedback he receives (through laughter), he filters his material and narrows it down to a small, but proven, set of jokes.

When we fail, we get feedback on what we are good at doing, if we are willing to look. Our own strengths and weaknesses are further defined by failures. When you succeed, it’s more difficult to see your weaknesses. With failures, the message is amplified. The question is, are you listening?

Famous Failures

Founder of Macy’s department stores, R.H. Macy started off opening several retail ventures that all failed. He had tried printing, real estate, and gold prospecting. His first Macy’s store in Haverhill, Massachusetts, even failed. Using his experience with failed businesses, he persevered to continue honing his retail store. After opening a dry goods store in New York City, he grew his business and slowly began expanding to adjacent buildings. With new properties and a bigger store, he developed the department store as we know it today. In fact, it was his experience in printing that helped him create unique advertisements to draw in shoppers. Macy turned his failures into knowledge he could capitalize on.

Sometimes failure catapults you into new endeavors. Ever heard of Vera Wang the ice skater? After training and competing for years, she tried out for the 1968 Olympic team. She didn’t make it. Unfazed, she eventually transitioned to the fashion world. After working for years at Vogue, she was passed over for the editor-in-chief position and went to Ralph Lauren. It was only in planning her own wedding, just before turning 40, that she discovered her calling: designing wedding dresses. Her life lesson is important because it tells us to look at the bigger picture. Though we may encounter failures along the way, picking a new path doesn’t mean we are going backwards, rather just moving towards a better goal.

How to Fail Better

If you’ve altered your perspective on failure, you still may not necessarily know what to do next. After all, some failing is better than others. So how do you fail better?

First, you have to detach yourself from your failures. Know that they are merely external outcomes, not internal definitions. You may have failed, but you are not a failure. One approach is to practice mindfulness of your thoughts. Don’t get carried away with every emotion that passes through your brain. Try this: Pretend your failure is actually your friend’s failure and they just told you about it. What would you say to that friend? Let’s hope it’s not, “You are garbage and you should probably quit.” You’d give them compassion and tell them to get back on the horse. Having this type of external mindset can help you externalize the outcome.

Next, you need to add context to the failure. Gary Vaynerchuck, the successful entrepreneur of countless ventures, says that failures can be small but significant. What does this failure mean for your business? For your life? By adding back context, you give yourself choices. Be honest with yourself about what it would take to start over or try again.

Lastly, get feedback analysis on your failures. This is what helps determine your own strengths. When you hear “No” a lot, you have to ask, “Why not?” When you attempt something that will end in success or failure, try writing down what you think will happen. When you reach an outcome, you can directly compare what you know now with what you thought in the past. Just as it does with your personal strengths, feedback analysis shows you where you should focus your efforts and what just isn’t working. Furthermore, you get a much clearer vision on what is working that needs improvement.

In the end, whether you decide that you’re finished or whether you’re going to get back up is all in your head. You can accept defeat and stay in the same room you’ve been stuck in, or you can fail until the day you take your last breath. Will you get better with each failure, or simply keep trying the same thing? Don’t keep walking into a wall trying to turn it into a door. Either go find the door or get out your power tools and get to work cutting out your own door.

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Philip Clark

Philip Clark is a former business consultant who currently writes about where leadership meets psychology. On occasion he mixes in education and social impact, aiming to improve the world one person at a time. Earning his degree in Psychology and an MBA from the College of William & Mary, he offers insight into looking past a standard checklist life by digging into what makes you tick and then improving it.