Failure is a Blessing

Failure is a blessing.  It is natural to not like failing and to want to avoid it at all costs.  Yet, only through failure can we achieve more than we thought possible.

When my daughter was little, she was an excellent crawler.  She was quick and could get anywhere she wanted.  As a result, she had no interest in learning to walk.  What was the point?  Walking was slow and she wasn’t very good at it.  I joked that she’d still be crawling when she graduated high school.

For her first birthday, we put her in a fancy polka dot dress.  The dress was longer than what she normally wore and had a lining that was slick.  All of a sudden, she couldn’t crawl because the dress was in the way.  She kept trying, but failed.  Repeatedly.  But then something amazing happened.  She stood up and took a step.  Then another and another.  Only by failing at crawling was she able to change her focus and start walking.

Photo credit: Flickr Dermot O’Halloran

Failure provides a wonderful platform for moving forward.  As John Maxwell writes, failing forward turns mistakes into stepping stones for success.  I have had several failures recently which have made me think about the benefits of failing.  It doesn’t make me happier to fail, but helps me appreciate the three wonderful blessings of failure.

1.  Push our skills and abilities to the limit.  I’ve been struggling with a research project recently and just can’t seem to make progress on it.  Every time I think I’ve figured it out some other issue comes up.  It has been frustrating and the project has failed to get off to a great start.  I want the project to work, but it seems like it may be a failure.  However, when I think more about the project, I realize that the project is a success regardless of the outcome.  I have never attempted a study this ambitious and complicated.  My skills as a researcher are being taxed and I am having to think through various alternatives far more than usual.  I am pushing my skills and abilities which in the end will improve my research capability.  This development means not only is the project not a failure, but it is a tremendous success because of the benefits I receive.

2.  Force a time out and reassessment.  When things are going well, we put blinders on and keep following the same path.  Even if there are warning signs that maybe we should turn around, we ignore them.  Few events will cause a pause in life more than failure and the bigger the better.  Failure gets our attention and forces us to reassess our priorities.  How are you spending your time?  How is your work-life balance?  What are your opportunities for additional development?  Failure is a blessing because it wakes us up to assess reality and make informed decisions about our next steps.

3.  Stumble onto something great.  Often the greatest discoveries are made by mistakes and accidents.  If we plan a project or make decisions to avoid failure, we can end up limiting our success.  For example, one of the reasons my research project has been a failure so far is that I was reaching far outside of the usual box.  I could have pursued a safe study that would have had a high likelihood of success.  But it wouldn’t be a great study.  We have to take chances and fail in order to stumble onto something great.

Many of the people and ideas that we would think are enormous successes started out as failures.  An experiment goes wrong and then leads to a world changing product.  A manuscript is rejected dozens of times before becoming one of our greatest pieces of literature.  The important thing is to remember that failure is a blessing.  Without failure, we can’t learn to walk.  And if we don’t learn to walk, we can’t run.  And if we can’t run, we can’t run into walls.  And if we can’t run into walls, we won’t be able to achieve the greatness to be found on the other side.