6 ways to see the success in your failure and why you must

6 ways to see the success in your failure

Bestselling author JK Rowling was rejected by no fewer than 10 publishers, while the greatest-ever basketballer, Michael Jordan, didn’t make his high-school team and Beethoven was dismissed by his violin teacher as having no musical talent. With success in no way assured, why did these people pursue their dreams with gritty determination and resolve? The answer is simple: because they had to. They had no choice but to follow their life purpose no matter the heartache or rejection. Rowling had to invent Harry Potter, Beethoven had to express the music pulsing through his veins, Jordan needed to bounce that ball. The endeavour was everything. If you only do something to achieve a particular outcome, you actually deprive yourself of the passionate pursuit.

Not all dreams of success come true and many of us have dreams that aren’t realised, but that doesn’t in any way diminish the validity of the dream. Sometimes, in failure, we are so diminished by the loss that we often overlook the self-knowledge acquired along the way. We forget that it’s the pursuit that defines us, not the outcome.

Winners and losers

We live in a society that pivots on binary propositions and ideals. Left or right, for or against and, of course, winners and losers. It can only be one or the other — and this notion exists in every part of our lives: in love, at the playground, on the sports field, in the boardroom. Winners enjoy the rewards and the accolades, while the losers lie vanquished and forgotten on the sidelines of life.

Wouldn’t it be refreshing to be surrounded by people who celebrated the valiant endeavour and the earnest trier? In this sports-mad country, we’ve been seduced by the idea of “going for gold”. It’s not good enough even to win silver or bronze, let alone be someone who has trained for years just to make it to the starting line.

Sometimes, in failure, we are so diminished by the loss that we often overlook the self-knowledge acquired along the way.

It’s sold to us that success will bring happiness and satisfaction, but that’s not always the case. One-time world-number-one tennis player Andre Agassi speaks of his intense hatred of tennis in his memoir, Open. Despite the wealth and recognition, he never relished his own success; it was never his dream but his father’s. Success was rendered hollow.

Present-day philosopher Alain de Botton muses, “We should not give up on our ideas of success, but we should make sure that they are our own. We should focus in on our ideas and make sure that we own them; that we are truly the authors of our own ambitions. Because it’s bad enough not getting what you want, but it’s even worse to have an idea of what it is you want and find out, at the end of the journey, that it isn’t, in fact, what you wanted all along.”

Sometimes when you win, you actually lose. It’s the worthy and heartfelt pursuit that matters, especially as success is never guaranteed.

Why failing does not make you a failure

Microsoft founder and billionaire Bill Gates once said, “Success is a lousy teacher.” That other great tech-head, Steve Jobs, stated without reservation, “You’ve got to be willing to fail, to crash and burn. If you’re afraid of failing you won’t get very far.”

Neither of these self-made men is endorsing failure; they are speaking of its instructional nature. Nor are they advocating embracing failure in order to compensate for not winning or being successful. In fact, the celebration of failure is actually missing the point. It subverts failure into a contorted version of winning through defensive rationalisation; we deprive ourselves of the opportunity to learn.

Rewriting failure as victory can be paralysing. The chef who has his food sent back repeatedly might argue he is misunderstood, but it may just be that he’s an inadequate cook. What rejection and failure provide is the opportunity to learn. Failure asks the question, “Are you on the right path?” or “Is this suited to you?” It can also play an encouraging role: “Keep going. You missed out but you’re on the right track.” Failure implores you to examine yourself, your motives and your innate abilities in order to teach you how to reinvent yourself.

Failure plays a critical role in life and, just as we have learned to love success, we must learn to respect failure.

Baby steps

When we see a baby trying to walk, we’re charmed by their valiant attempts to achieve lift-off. We applaud each time they give it a go and we commiserate in their setbacks. Imagine if we were to scowl and frown each time they came crashing down to Earth. Part of the reason babies keep on trying is because of the warm-hearted encouragement they receive from loving parents.

Sadly, this generosity seems to wane over time and we become less tolerant of failure. Funnily enough, there’s an episode of The Simpsons where the anti-hero and consummate loser, Homer, is watching a show depicting aspirational toddlers on a treadmill. Writ large on the banner hung across the top is: “Run, don’t crawl.” This is funny because it contains an uncomfortable truth. We live in the age of the “pushy parent” who enlists tutors, coaches and even motivational mentors who will deliver kids that are expected to aspire, achieve and attain. To accept is not an option!

“We should not give up on our ideas of success, but we should make sure that they are our own.”

Society tends to devalue or demonise people for not winning. If we accepted more readily that losing is OK as long as great effort has been invested, perhaps more of us would back ourselves. However, our culture has become so inoculated against the notion of failure that we even shield our children from it so all they value is success.

Immunisation against losing starts in kindergarten. Children receive awards for just turning up. Participation is the new “first” where no talent is required and actual achievement is made a mockery of. Parents even rig games of chance such as the indispensable birthday game “pass the parcel” so that every kid gets a prize as they unwrap each layer. No child is allowed to fail, to miss out, to understand that luck doesn’t always go their way.

Is it any wonder that more and more children are presenting to therapy with anxiety or behavioural issues? Adolescent girls are self-harming and succumbing to eating disorders, and boys are not immune to self-destructive behaviour. Hot-housing children, over time, diminishes their resilience and encourages higher and higher expectations of themselves. One comment is all it takes to send a young person off into a cycle of self-hatred or unworthiness. Parents may want to rethink their goal to create gifted and talented children and instead place self-regard higher up the scale of desired virtues.

Since winning is the only option in our culture rather than becoming resilient or dealing with life’s disappointments, we mitigate for failure and we rationalise and compensate. This disservice to our children will undoubtedly play out in later years when they just don’t know how to cope with failure.

If success is hollow when it’s not earned, then failure is useless when lessons aren’t learned.

Love hurts

Failure is meant to hurt. Think about that great love of your life who left you in the lurch or that brilliant business idea that fell flat on its face. Of course, the anguish of losing is not commensurate with the elation of winning, but as Nietzsche, the great 19th-century German philosopher, said, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”

Often when one door closes, another opens. But you have to live and learn so you can find that open door.

While failure should never be a goal, it’s there to instruct you and to make you examine life and the choices you make. As they say, often when one door closes, another opens. But you have to live and learn so you can find that open door.

When it comes to love, the one thing we all know is that there are no guarantees. And yet we are still head over heels with falling in love, if dating apps are any indication. We continue to come back for more even after failed romances. There is no stigma for being unlucky in love. Why is it that broken-heartedness is not deemed as failure yet we still use terms such as “lost love” or “he won my heart”?

The language of love is binary, as there are winners and losers in love. But the reason we don’t malign or condemn the crestfallen is because heartbreak tends to be a universal experience. No one is immune. Golden couples divorce and the most unlikely or ungainly people end up finding the happy-ever-after scenario. Love is the one area where failure is not only tolerated but elicits great sympathy and compassion.

It would be helpful to us all if we were allowed to grieve other failures just as we do when love goes awry. It is absolutely OK to feel anguish and disappointment over any form of failure, as it can provide insight and growth that success simply cannot. Failure is humbling whereas success can provide a false sense of self.

Congratulations, you’ve lost!

Everyone has a story about failure and many people allow it to define them. Often, the fear of humiliation is worse than the fear of failure itself. The cost to your confidence and overwhelming disappointment that accompanies failure, as well as other factors such as financial loss, means you feel you can’t start over. And that’s understandable.

I should know. I have my own story on failure. I ran as an independent candidate at the 2016 federal election, pitted against former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, no less. Now this was a situation where the chance of winning in a rock-solid safe seat was almost akin to a snowball’s chance in hell. In short, just shy of impossible. So why run? The question for me was not why but why not? I believed passionately that change was needed and that change started with me. I cared enough about our political process to become a part of it, knowing full well the likely outcome.

Courage is a noble attribute in and of itself, despite the outcome.

And we all know the outcome! While I didn’t win, I affected a swing of nearly 10 per cent against the sitting member and even took skin off the Greens and Labor. It was an experience full of mixed emotions, exhaustion and character-defining moments. I met inspiring people, unsung heroes who make a difference every day in people’s lives. I assembled a team who energetically worked towards a common goal. I can honestly say that every day was filled with new experiences and challenges. I was pushed to my limits, faced my fears and was absolutely shattered at the end of it all — but I discovered so much about the person I am and what I could do.

Despite the defeat, I learned more about resilience through loss and overcoming defeat through gracious acceptance. I also felt the crushing weight of disappointment and even grief after the banners came down. There was an empty void as I tried to make sense of what had occurred. I certainly wasn’t embracing failure; however, failure led me to ask what this experience meant to me and what role it played in my life’s purpose. This experience in many ways has inspired me to continue my work to further champion mental health community initiatives. Despite the loss, the experience was empowering, even life changing.

There was one undeniable success that came from my failure, however. As a role model to my two daughters, I showed them by example that you must fight for what you believe in. I showed them never to let gender hold them back and that the worthy pursuit is an end in itself.

The victory of well-earned failure

The cliché that we learn more from our failures than from our wins seems rather trite until it happens to you. And the bigger the failure, the grander is the testament to character. After all, the saying is “fortune favours the brave” and not “fortune favours the winner”. Courage is a noble attribute in and of itself, despite the outcome.

Character and fortitude are what you witness when the last runner in a marathon limps over the finishing line, refusing to give up. We can be moved to tears by such an act of gritty determination because, in this moment of humility and earnest fragility, we see ourselves. The reflection of our own vulnerability inspires us to carry on in our own endeavours. We learn from and can even be inspired by defeat — our own and that of others. These moments remind us to believe in ourselves, to realise that winning is not merely about being first but actually committing to the journey and making it to the end.

Winning comes when you find the inner resources to never yield. On my own political journey, I learned so much about myself: what it means to work as a team; how to deal with unfair play and forces beyond your control. I learned what resilience and guts means, pushing through exhaustion and inevitable loss to find real strength of character. Finally, I learned all over again how to grieve and to accept losing.  And that was my successful life lesson.

Losing is never fun, but it can be the making of you.

Marie Rowland

Marie Rowland

Marie Rowland is a therapist in private practice on Sydney’s northern beaches helping people resolve the underlying issues that perpetuate conflict or disconnectedness so they can create meaningful and happy lives. Marie speaks at conferences, forums and community events on a variety of topics from wellbeing and positive psychology to practical philosophy.

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