I've missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I've been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.
- Michael Jordan
What would you try if you knew you couldn’t fail?
This question is often used as a way to motivate and inspire people to follow their dreams. However, I see this question as counter-effective. It only reinforces that failure is the absolute worst thing that can happen to you or to anyone.
It’s a reminder of how absolutely terrified we are of failure, and further, how unprepared we are for it when it happens. Being terrified of something and feeling unprepared for it tends to result in one thing: we feel overpowered and want to retreat and hide.
Here’s a question I would love to see asked instead:
What would you try if you knew failure was just a bump in the road?
I would love for us to encourage each other not to see failure as something so awful and massive it’s unbearable, but rather as something we can learn to navigate. The most successful people in this world are not successful because they never fail. Rather, they learn to move through pitfalls, process the feelings associated with them, and to remember that they are not endings.
There are times these feelings can seem like definitive, this is it! endings, such as when we lose our jobs or a marriage ends in divorce. What makes those moments so heavy, so final, is the emotional feelings that come with them that we believe define us and our lives. For example, when we lose our job it’s easy to fall into a deep pit of insecurity. We forget how accomplished and intelligent we are and instead focus on our shame and guilt.
When I first began writing, everything I wrote was rejected. I felt I had failed and was devastated. However, when I tried to talk to people about how I felt like a complete loser, how embarrassed I was, and how scared I was to go on they couldn’t understand me. They felt that put my writing out there was a huge achievement.
They didn’t see failure at all, but rather courage and determination. It took me a long time to realize they were right. Their perspective on my situation was both valid and helpful.
This is the thing with failure – it’s entirely perspective based. We give it any meaning it has, and when we give it meaning we give it power and grow it in our minds exponentially.
A small rock group might have a debut album that sells 50,000 albums, which far exceeds their wildest dreams and they celebrate their success. At the same time, an established popstar might have an album that sells 100,000 copies, and it’s deemed a failure. Which is true? Are they both successes? Are they both failures?
How about neither. How about it doesn’t mean anything, and what matters is that they feel they created from their heart and with passion.
Further still, things seen as failures in the moment sometimes just need time to pan out. “Sleeping Beauty” did not begin as a beloved Disney movie. It was a box office disappointment. Van Gogh was not a famous painter in his day but was instead supported by his brother. “The Great Gatsby” confused people when it debuted and was never expected to be a literary classic.
Failure terrifies and hurts us because we are so committed to the idea that it can and it should. Our need to outright deny it as the only way we can chase our dreams only reinforces its power over us.
These days, I motivate myself by telling myself that what matters is how much I'm growing.
Did I learn from that thing didn't work out? Did I grow as a person? Great! Then that means it was an enriching and expansive experience.
Learning not to let outside circumstances define me is an ongoing process. I am still learning to choose to feel worthy and capable no matter what.
I’ve learned that failure isn’t something I need to hide from like a monster under the bed. Each and every time it shows up, I have the power to look it in the face and remind myself that it's not important. My only goal in life is not to avoid failure. My goals are to create, to express myself, to grow my mind and heart.
Let us not chase our dreams trembling in fear of failure, but not expecting it either.
Let us go forward simply knowing if it does happen, it doesn’t define us. It’s not an ending. It's a chance to learn and grow, and isn't that what makes life enriching anyways?
Living only for success means we're living for approval. We, as humans, are alive for so much more than that. We're living to create technology that transforms lives. We're living to create art that dives into what it means to be alive. We're living to try things and feel what it means to soar high and tumble down and then rise back up again.
We're living for all of it, because all of it is life.