October 1, 2014 seeing_admin

Failure Stands Alone Willingly

I’ve been consumed with the idea of failure lately and what failure has meant in my life. Take for instance, my failure at selling a million copies of my first book, or even sales of half a million. That sounds tongue in cheek because who am I to write a book that is that successful?

But stop right there. That question is steeped in failure, isn’t it? My idea of failure is embedded in my expectations. In turn, those expectations are embedded in the list of goals posted on my refrigerator door.

How do I pull this mess apart and see what my beliefs are about failure and how they’ve influenced the outcome of my goals? After all, that was the emphasis for writing my second book, Carry the Rock An Apprentice Journey: to discover why the apprenticeship had failed and how the mutual beliefs and expectations of my teacher and myself had contributed to its demise.

After I left my apprenticeship I had put “failure” in the cross hairs and was determined to take it down. No more failure for me. But I learned something I hadn’t expected to see as I began to write.   Failure in and of it self is not the enemy. Instead it can become an experience of intense revelation that can propel one toward greater fulfillment and acceptance of what happens in life.

Choose a failure you’ve experienced in your life. Get a clear image of it in your mind. As you read through the rest of this blog post, apply what is being said here to your “failure”. See if you can shift the meaning of “failure” so that it becomes revelation rather than pariah.

Oliver Burkeman in his book, The Antidote Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, says, “We ignore or avoid failure so habitually that we rarely stop to consider all the people who may have followed any set of instructions for happiness or success…but then failed to achieve the result.”[i] (Think of the list of goals written on your refrigerator door.) We want to only look at those instructions or stories that will guarantee our success. This is what we’ve learned is of value: celebrate success and cover up failure.

So heads up! At the end of this blog post, I’m not going to provide a list of instructions for how to avoid failure because my experience with failure has shown me that it is a vital, stand alone experience without the trappings of success nailed to it to make it palatable. In other words, failure, in and of itself, can be a worthwhile experience without linking it to success as a silver lining.

I’ll be quoting Burkeman often because his perspective on failure is an eye opening one—“…there is happiness to be found in embracing failure as failure, not just as a path to success—that welcoming it might simply feel better than perpetually struggling to avoid it.”[ii]

Success is built into the psyche of our society. Of course, I want to sell a million copies of my book! What author doesn’t? That would tell me half a dozen things or more about me as a writer. Those illusory expectations that all of us have but few of us can clearly articulate until after the fact of the matter often operate outside the realm of our willingness-to-be-conscious thoughts.

Here were my expectations: my writing is good enough to attract a readership; my message is important enough to share; I want to generate an income from my writing; people can benefit from my story—I’m not the only “failure” at an apprenticeship; why write if I’m not going to be read—the assumption here is that ‘writer’ is a guarantor that ‘reader’ will follow; and, (a particularly ugly expectation or belief, in this instance,) there is no benefit to failure, none whatsoever.

That last expectation is worth honing in on. It is a common cultural belief that is not often challenged: failure signals ‘not-good-enough’, failure signals ‘try harder, try smarter’, failure signals expulsion into oblivion.

No one wants to think about failure, it’s too depressing. The results of failure include that you will end up a nobody, you will be silenced by shame and embarrassment, and a tricky expectation that helps to create but then cripples every gambler, keep throwing money at the roulette wheel and success is just around the corner.

Here’s one of my personal favorites that screams our society’s belief about failure: Einstein attempted to harness electricity 3,000 times before he was successful at creating the light bulb. What?! The context for success is inherent in how many times you fail? Would we have heard about Einstein in this context if he had stopped at 1,587 attempts and had never discovered the secret to electricity?

In this iconic story, we are told that success and failure are inversely proportional—the harder we try the sweeter victory is when success arrives and failure is worthwhile only when the end result is success. I’ve got to say, those are damaging and limiting beliefs that give credence to failure only in a failed relationship to success.

What are the benefits to failure when the past or future experience of success doesn’t follow? Burkeman captures this aspect of failure that is not often embraced: “There is an openness and honesty in failure, a down- to-earth confrontation with reality that is lacking at the higher altitudes of success.”[iii]

A critical distinction here is the difference between expectation and experience. Expectations set parameters on an experience that strangle it of much vibrancy and creativity. Expectations can set us up for failure and taint the experience toward disappointment and discouragement when the expectation isn’t met.

If all I can see in the context of selling my first book is that I’ve sold less than a million copies then I’m less likely to see the many benefits of having written it in the first place. Those benefits include recognizing the joy and fulfillment in writing, gaining a deeper level of understanding on my topic, experiencing the ins and outs of publishing, and gaining a greater appreciation for my own passion to write.  All of those experiences held value apart from not selling enough copies to put my name on a bestseller list.

The American Zen Buddhist Natalie Goldberg says about failure, “Achievement solidifies us. Believing we are invincible, we want more and more. To see and feel things as they really are, we have to crash. Only then can we drop through to a more authentic self.”[iv]

Failure takes that list of goals off the refrigerator, crumples them up, and tosses them into the round file. It was the expectation of success that put them there in the first place without an option for never actually accomplishing them because that would indicate—ugh, that awful experience of failing to achieve them.

It’s not that I want to glorify failure and demonize success, however, I do want to view failure when it occurs in the light of failure alone—without being manacled to success as a perpetually preferred outcome. Failure is capable and willing to standalone.

A merit to failure is in finding out that “we too often make our goals into parts of our identities so that failure becomes an attack on who we are”.[v] What did I tell myself—what do you tell yourself—when an expectation isn’t met in the manner you wanted? “I didn’t sell as many books as I wanted because I am….” How I fill in that blank informs me about my beliefs, attitudes, and judgments toward myself and not anyone else. My failure is no one else’s fault but neither is it an indictment on who I am. If I’m able to fill in that blank with “…I am committed to writing. Some of it will be good, some of it will be so-so”, I move away from blame and open myself to my own potential and growth.

Embracing failure for the ways it can help us to see ourselves more authentically is meaningful to me rather than to merely tolerate failure until it leads to success. I’ve changed my definition of failure from one of “must try harder” to one of “this has been valuable because…” and then I fill in that blank with the ways in which I’ve grown and enriched my life because of that failure rather than in spite of it.

Fill in the blank for yourself after eye balling your own failure. “Failure was valuable because…”


[i] Burkeman, O. (2012) The Antidote Happiness For People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking. New York: Faber and Faber, Inc. p. 167.

[ii] Ibid., 172.

[iii] Ibid., 174.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid., 173.