"Failure is not an option!" A famous line from the movie Apollo 13 spoken by Ed Harris playing the role of Gene Kranz. I get it. When the chips are down and your back is against the wall, listening to that small voice that says you can't do it is NOT an option.
As inspirational as this can be, I think that we often take a good idea way too far. Failure is always an option. In fact, it's often true that the more successful we are at something the more failure we've experienced.
Here are a few famous examples of failures: Albert Einstein was refused admission to the Zurich Polytechnic School, Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard, Abraham Lincoln failed at business and lost his first attempt at the Presidency, and my favorite, Babe Ruth struck out nearly twice as many times as he hit home runs. How can all of these famous and successful people also be such failures?
Were they really failures?
When we hear about the stellar success of human endeavor, we often do not hear about the years or even decades of struggle that ensued to rise to that achievement.
When did we learn failure was a bad thing?
With all these anecdotes about failure being a good thing, or at least a seemingly necessary thing, why do so many of us have a fear of failure, or even shame about failure?
When a toddler learns to walk, we generally don't ridicule them for falling down. Regardless of how many failed attempts there are, parents are called from the other room, the cameras come out, and those first steps are a joyous experience.
However, when that same child runs track in high school, there can be a sense of utter devastation when she doesn't place high enough or make varsity. We tell her she just has to work harder. That might be true. It might also be true that somewhere along the way she learned that failure was a horrible thing rather than part of the process, and rather than working harder (or smarter), she just gives up. "I can't do it."
Who said you can't do it?
The world we live in said she can't do it. It is embedded in our culture that failure is a bad thing. According to Merriam-Webster, failure is a "lack of success" or a "falling short".
Here's my question: compared to what? Can a toddler who is learning to walk fail? It's the first time. What if the toddler takes longer than is typical to learn to walk. Will we blame her for not working hard enough? Hopefully, we will be supportive and do whatever is necessary to help her out.
However, when she doesn't run the 100 meters fast enough, she falls short of some expectation and now she is a failure? Or she lacks in her success?
I'm not suggesting that we move the bar for achievement. I'm saying that we need to stop telling ourselves that when we fall short of the bar we failed. Keep falling short until you get there.
Failure and learning go together.
At the end of the day, we can only decide for ourselves if we fail or succeed. If we don't know clearly what the goal is, that's one problem. If others just tell us that if we don't reach a goal that we are failures, they don't really understand the process.
Keep failing. Get back up and fail again. And again. And again. Keep failing until you figure it out. Find someone who can teach you how to achieve the goal. If they tell you that you are a failure. they don't really understand. Find someone else. And keep failing.
We can only gain by allowing ourselves the opportunity to fail and learn. That's when real growth happens.