There’s no prize for coming last. But that doesn’t mean it holds no value at all.
We’re so obsessed with not measuring up to expectations that we can deny ourselves the permission to take chances. So many of us are risk averse. Paralyzed by the fear of failure. It robs us of our creativity and moments of spontaneity that are often the source of our greatest triumphs.
And although some may view failure as the end of the road, it’s far from being an absolute.
You’re meant to fail!
The key difference between those who allow their experiences to define them and those who view it as a challenge is attitude. You have a choice. What direction are your missteps going to take you? The only way is forward. “You fail your way to success.”
Letting Go of Everything You Ever Dreamed About…
When I was young, I was never the best at anything. I worked hard, and I always managed to reach the next milestone that was placed in front of me. But that’s about it.
However, I did have a talent for music that surfaced in my early teens. Again, I was never the best or most technical player. But I was creative, and I pursued it relentlessly. Like many others before and after me, I thought I was going to set the world on fire with a guitar in hand, wearing my heart of my sleeve.
It didn’t work out. Not even close…
My idea of success was all about me. It was an ego-centric vision. And through a combination of unfortunate injuries and just plain running out of career options in my mid-twenties, I admitted defeat. At the time, it crushed me… I’d invested more than ten years into learning multiple instruments, and to lean on the old cliché—it was my entire world.
But I had to make a change.
It was the first time in my life I’d ever had to step away from something and say, “Okay, this isn’t working. What else is there for me?”
Looking back now, in many ways, it was a very grounding experience. I was perhaps guilty of being a little too cocksure and overly ambitious. I can see how it was necessary, that it was a failure which came as an intervention of sorts, allowing me to steer my life in a new direction – one that would ultimately hold far more meaning…
At twenty-six, I decided to reskill myself. So I went back into full-time education to study creative writing. I’m a self-confessed right-brainer. And if one creative avenue was now closed to me, I was at least going to make sure I could still lead an interesting life.
“Failure should be our teacher, not our undertaker. Failure is delay, not defeat. It is a temporary detour, not a dead end. Failure is something we can avoid only by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing.” ~Denis Waitley
Now, instead of the egocentricity of being a musician, I wanted to be a fantasy novelist!
Different setting, same mindset.
But all that changed during my third and final year of university. As part of a work-based module, I had to create and deliver a writing-based project that would benefit the local community. At the time, homelessness was becoming an increasing issue, so I chose to offer poetry writing workshops at a local YMCA shelter.
And that’s where the switch flipped for me. It was a paradigm-shifting experience.
Up until that point, I had a fixed idea of what my success would—and should—look like. It was about me and myattainment. It had never really included what I could for others. But over the course of six weeks working with a disadvantaged social group that changed very quickly.
Poetry is a hard sell, even to a many writers. But here I was trying to get people engaged who were the furthest thing from an ideal audience. Many of those who attended suffered from mental health issues. They weren’t always thatinterested and sometimes didn’t show up at all
But they did respect me and gave the exercises their best effort. They didn’t always ‘get it.’ But they were willing, and I was grateful. Around half the attendees were illiterate/dyslexic, and as far as they were concerned, I was exposing their flaws. Except I wasn’t. I was trying to empower them. And slowly, this came off as the weeks progressed.
There were more than a few ‘aha moments’ in those workshops. But my biggest success was taking a young guy in his mid-twenties, who we’ll call Mike, from a place of zero confidence to complete elation at creating his own original piece, despite suffering from severe dyslexia.
I don’t have the superlatives to describe the moment other than to phrase it like this…
When Mike read his poem out loud, you could see him grasping something that wasn’t there before. You could see a change in his demeanor. He’d let go of his self-imposed limits. He ‘got it,’ and I got it, too. I could see the value of giving belief back to those who’d long-since written themselves out of the game.
It was a transformative experience for me and a real watershed moment.
I got a huge kick from having such an impact on someone’s well-being. I was completely enthused by a passion to help facilitate positive change.
“You have not lived today until you have done something for someone who can never repay you.” ~John Bunyan
By that point, I was close to graduation, and let’s just say you don’t look for openings as a novelist in the classified columns. But here was something that I could do now. I could make a difference in people’s lives, whether through writing or some other means. I resolved that I would become a support worker and be of service in whatever way I could.
My vision of success was no longer about me. It was no longer about financial gain, status, or any other material trappings. The ‘thing’ I now sought was more intangible but was so much more valuable from a spiritual perspective.
From this vantage point, not making it as a musician didn’t feel like such wasted potential, anymore. That chapter of my life now appeared more akin to a stepping stone. I’d simply been redirected by synchronicity. It was confirmation and affirmation that as one door closes, another one is always opening.
No longer did I fear failure, because here was a path that could only have been taken if there was room freed up in my life to do so. Sometimes, you need to let go in order to move on. And here was a prime example of that.
Discovering What Could Not Have Been Found Otherwise
After I graduated, I volunteered at a breakfast club for the homeless on weekends. I then used that experience to gain a full-time position supporting young adults with autism, profound learning disabilities, and challenging behaviors at the beginning of 2016.
It was an incredibly enriching experience. And here, the theme of failure presented itself once more. I was employed to support people who lacked the capacity to effectively manage their own lives. But more importantly, I was there to promote their independence.
The mandate I had was to try, try, and try again with those in my care. It was my job to improve their quality of life and assist these people in the basic tasks we take for granted, such as brushing our teeth, getting dressed, and other ‘mundane’ activities.
There was no such concept as failure in that environment. It was completely redundant. How can you call someone a failure who’s willing to apply themselves day after day? You daren’t. Although that’s not to say there weren’t challenges.
In fact, it took months of hard work and positive reinforcement to make the breakthroughs we did. But once a skill was mastered, it stuck—and it’s moments like that drove you on to achieve more.
“Successful people do what unsuccessful people are not willing to do. Don’t wish it were easier; wish you were better.” ~Jim Rohn
It was during this time that I again started to consider the merits of so-called “failure.”
I wondered, “Is the most effective way to learn really to get things right first time?” Obviously, within a care setting, you want to make progress as quickly as possible. But what about when you’re trying to gain mastery over a more complex skill?
Let me phrase it another way…
Who would you rather have as your teacher, the prodigious talent who’s been a natural since birth and was born to do [insert skill], or would rather have the other person?
The one who’s had to fight tooth and nail for every inch of their ability? The one who’s made every mistake possible and can pass on nuanced insights about what not to do?
I know who my choice would be.
“Every adversity, every failure, every heartache carries with it the seed of an equal or greater benefit.” ~Napoleon Hill
Failure, for all its negative connotations, has a definite and unquantifiable value. It’s a catalyst for growth. The more mistakes you make, the more complete your understanding becomes of a given craft. But not only that, it encourages you to self-reflect and self-analyze.
It creates a sense of accountability, forcing you to ask deep and challenging questions of yourself.
When you’re stuck at a hurdle, it can be deflating. But the ability to problem-solve and think your way out of dead-ends is a true life skill you can’t put a price on.
Think about how many times you’ve experienced the same frustrating setback time and again. But then one day, you crack the code. How did it feel when you eventually made that breakthrough? It was undoubtedly a feeling like no other, right?
And that’s because you know what you’ve achieved has been earned.
It has an integrative effect, and it holds far more in the way of value than simply being given the right way to do something. From adversity comes the ability to learn and create experiences that can then be called on as wisdom in later life.
The path of the most successful people in recent history speaks loud and clear about what failure truly means…
Stephen King had his manuscript for Carrie rejected by thirty different publishers before it was accepted, Walt Disney was fired by the Kansas Post for a “lack of imagination,” and Thomas Edison famously took 10,000 attempts to create the first lightbulb.
All of their successes were rooted in what must have appeared to be unending failure to the casual onlooker. But in their minds, they were always “failing forward.” They’d simply explored an avenue that didn’t yield a positive outcome. They reset and got back to work.
Your failures represent the greatest opportunity for learning and growth that you have at your disposal. Don’t take them to heart. Take them to the bank. Remember them. Analyze them. Etch them into your mind and vow never to make the same mistake again.
It’s a foolish person who laughs at those who’re willing apply themselves to a task in which they’re clearly out of depth. We should celebrate this kind of effort, not mock people for trying. We all have to start somewhere. Progress was never made without facing at least some form of hardship or setback.
That’s what I’ve come to learn through my own life, working with the homeless and those with profound learning disabilities. It doesn’t matter how many times you fall down; it’s about how you pick yourself back up.
It’s about how you respond.
Failure is an option.
There is no shame in it. For me, it represents a learning curve rather than an absolute. Failure is a label that we give ourselves based on our expectations. Again, these too, can also be changed. Your success is relative to where you’re standing right now.
You have a choice as to whether you drag the past around like a ball and chain, or whether you take ownership and start working with yourself instead of reinforcing your limitations.
Your failures aren’t the thing that’s holding you back… It’s you.