Why You Need Failure to Be Successful

I love seeing my kids fail. That might seem counter-intuitive. Aren’t my kids upset when they fail? Well, sure they are – at first. But we’re bringing them up to understand that there’s a bigger picture at play here.

Without things going wrong sometimes, without doing things wrong sometimes, there’s no personal growth. It’s through overcoming challenges and obstacles that we learn. Learning from our mistakes, as well as other people’s mistakes, is one of the most important things we can do in order to progress.

What is failure, really? You could call it the opposite of success. It’s falling short of something, or the act of something breaking. It refers to something that has not gone as planned and achieved the desired outcome. I failed is a phrase full of negative connotations marking someone’s inability to complete a task.

However, this definition overlooks the vast importance of trial and error when it comes to discovering a successful solution. There must be an infinite number of examples, but Edison is my favorite. Allegedly, his teachers at school labeled him too stupid to learn anything, and it took him a thousand iterations to create a working light bulb. However, when a reporter asked him how it felt to fail a thousand times, his reply encompassed what “failure” can really mean. He said he hadn’t really failed a thousand times – the light bulb was an invention with a thousand steps.

Don’t give up! Persist! Have people shaking their heads over your obstinacy. That’s how you get somewhere. If you fail, shake it off. It isn’t the end of the road; it’s just a step along it. The universe rewards those who keep going, who keep asking, who keep trying – even when they’ve failed. There is no greater education than failure.

Permission to fail

How do you reframe failure? It’s about a shift in perspective. Saying it’s okay to fail is like saying it’s okay to quit … and it is – if you’re quitting something that’s bad for you! Believing it’s okay to fail is fine – if you believe that failure’s good for you.

Creating your own reality is about turning these norms on their head. It’s about changing the way you look at things to your own advantage. Naturally, the more you try to do something, the more you’re going to fail at it. And that’s a good thing! It means you’re committed, like Edison, to getting it right in the end. The more you try, the more you will fail, but, also, the more likely you will be to succeed.

Once you’ve got it right, all that came before is completely reframed by your success. Achieving what you want in the end means that you were never really a failure! Just look at Steve Jobs, considered one of the most successful people to have passed through this world. In his 2005 Stanford commencement speech, he told three stories. The first was about connecting the dots. He described how dropping out of college meant attending classes he would never otherwise have been able to attend, and how, ten years later, what seemed like a class with no future application, calligraphy, shaped the game-changing Macintosh. He said, “Much of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on… You have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.”

His second story was about love and loss. Steve Jobs was fired from Apple, the company he founded, at the age of thirty. He called himself “a very public failure.” He could have “run away from the valley” and he could have given it all up, but he realized that he loved what he did. Embracing his new creative freedom, he went on to found Pixar and NeXT, which, strangely enough, Apple went on to acquire, bringing him back into the fold. In that time, he also met his wife, and he attributed it all to this devastating failure – being fired from Apple. He even called it the best thing that could have ever happened to him. He said, “Sometimes, life’s going to hit you in the head with a brick. Don’t lose faith.”

What could be a better example of overcoming failure and reframing it? At thirty, Steve Jobs was the biggest failure he knew! He felt like he had let down the next generation of entrepreneurs. He had been turfed out of the company that he himself had built and made so successful. But so many incredible things that went on to happen wouldn’t have been possible without this bump in the road. Failure was success in disguise, and it was only later, joining the dots looking back, that this made sense.  

The final story in his Stanford address was about death. This is something else you can reframe – you don’t have to look at death as being the end of your journey. Instead, you can look at it as being what gives life its meaning. It is inevitable and, if you look at it in a certain way, motivational. Steve Jobs said, “Almost everything, all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure, these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose.”

You are going to die one day, and you are going to fail a whole bunch before that day. But that’s great! How amazing is it that we have this life and this chance to shine? How amazing is it that we have this opportunity to learn, to reframe failure and step past it on our way to success?

Turn failure into success

One afternoon, I picked up my son Peter and two of his friends and took them up the mountain to go skiing. Now, to get into the main parking lot where I was dropping the boys off, you have to go up a steep, one-way road to the entrance. The exit is at the other end of the parking lot. As I was driving up, a car came down the hill the wrong way, driving dangerously straight towards me. I could have swerved out of the way, but I got hooked by anger. I held my ground, playing a game of chicken. The other driver pulled over to the side of the road. Reaching the front of the lot to drop the boys off, I saw in my rear-view mirror that the driver of the vehicle had turned his car around and was racing back up the road towards me.  

My heart started to race. I told the boys to stay in the truck and got out. The driver rolled down his window and began yelling at me for almost hitting him. I yelled back that he was the one going the wrong way down a one-way street and that he put our lives in danger because he was too lazy to read the signs or go out the right exit. I told him to get the heck out of there and he left.

When I calmed down, I felt absolutely horrible. I’d completely failed to control my emotions. Even though I had perceived myself to be in the right, I quickly realized I could have handled things a completely different way.

Failure is going to happen to you once in a while – you are going to fail. Like I said, life isn’t a straight line. But it’s what you do with it that matters. It’s whether you use it as an excuse to quit, and keep failing, or learn from it. When you learn from your mistakes, you realize that failure is education.

I want to share the rest of my entry in my Quantum Success Journal to show you how to really look at yourself and your actions. It’s possible to learn from the things that go wrong – even the things that you do wrong – and find yourself in a better position because of that act of self-reflection. With the experience behind you, you can then choose how to act going forward.

I learned a great deal from this encounter:

  1. I am human and made a mistake. Granted, the boys were in the truck and the driver had put them in danger but I should never have responded in the fashion. As a personal safety instructor as well as someone who has had extensive coaching in getting unhooked from emotions, I shouldn’t have allowed my emotions to take over.

  2. I wasn’t feeling 100% and I took it out on a stranger who could have made an honest mistake and really not seen the Do Not Enter signs.

  3. I can use this mistake as a teaching tool for myself and my son. No one is perfect. I am human and make mistakes – everybody does. It’s what you do with it that matters.

  4. You can meditate, train, be awakened, and learn about personal growth all you want, but applying it in the moment is the true test.

  5. Next time, I will unhook from the emotion and act appropriately, keeping a level head.

The trick is to look at events that unfold for learning and growing opportunities, but then let go of the past. The past doesn’t exist! If you come from a place of fear – fear of failure, fear of not being enough – and you are always looking back at events that entrench you in this fear, then all you get is more fear. The world becomes a fearful place to be. However, if you come from a place of unconditional love and live in each moment, letting life meet you half way, then you put yourself in a position to succeed.

When I talk about unconditional love, I’m talking about love with no rules. There’s no condition saying, “If this, then that.” It’s the difference between admiring the flowers in a valley for their inherent beauty versus the commercial value you could get from picking them and turning them into perfume. You can love everything as it is – not for how it serves your needs.

Don’t crumble when something goes wrong. Get creative instead. When life throws you challenges, it’s only going to make you stronger. It leads you down the path you are supposed to be going down. There is a magical reason why and you just have to see it. Like Steve Jobs said, you can’t connect the dots looking forward – you can only connect them looking backwards. That’s when the meaning of everything you’ve gone through becomes clear. Everything was needed to get you to this point and make you who you are.

Too many people look at challenges and problems as negative when, in reality, challenges are HUGE positives. They really are – you just have to look at them with a different set of glasses. When you look at life as a game, you realize you’re going to lose a hand sometimes – but that doesn’t mean you give up and stop playing. Have fun with it and keep going and you can accomplish amazing things!

Exercise: Reframe failure

This is one of life’s biggest challenges, because the fear of failure is one of the main culprits for holding people back. People hate to look foolish, and being knocked back is a horrible prospect. It’s all very well and good to say you ought to accept that failure will be a part of your reality and that you need to reframe it as an opportunity to learn, but how do you do that in practice? This is the way you overcome failure and become all the stronger for it.

This is where your Quantum Success Journal is truly priceless. You don’t want to dwell on failure or the prospect of failure – that only attracts more failure. But you do need to work through it in order to reap the benefits. These benefits might not appear right away; you may only be able to connect the dots looking back. However, you need to write about your failure as though you have already learned the lesson to come and gotten the value from it.

In your journal, start by describing a failure from your past, where you can already connect the dots and see how it led you down a path you might not have otherwise travelled. What lesson did you learn? What great thing happened that wouldn’t have happened otherwise?

Next, day by day, catalog your failures in a similar way, whether major or minor. State your intent to learn from them, grow from them, and look back and be able to teach from them. Do not dwell on what went wrong; focus on the perspective that you have already overcome it and that it has done you good – rewrite the event completely.

This is how I rewrote my failure:

I told the boys to stay in the truck and got out. The driver rolled down his window and began yelling at me for almost hitting him.

I responded in a calm tone. I immediately apologized if he had thought I did something wrong by not giving way to him, and proceeded to tell him that it’s a one-way street. I told him a story about another car doing the same thing to me last year, almost hitting us head on and causing severe harm to my family.

He apologized for not seeing the signs. I accepted and told him not to worry. Everyone makes mistakes. I asked him how the skiing was today. After he left, I proceeded to explain to Peter and his friends the lesson that could be learned from today’s events.  

The situation could have been 180 degrees different, but I know that I control my response to an event. It’s one thing to practice and know how to unhook yourself from an emotion; it’s another dimension to actually apply it to totally defuse the situation at hand. I am proud of myself for actually functionally applying my knowledge. I have the power to control my actions in the moment!