Ours is a culture that loves to worship success. We celebrate our winners with award shows, reward them with trophies, plaster their faces on magazine covers and billboards. We want to know whose clothes they wear, and more importantly, what is the great “secret of their success.” Failure, by contrast, is like the awkward teenage cousin who takes up presence in the room, and makes everyone just a tad uncomfortable. How do you begin a conversation? Should you mention the purple hair or not? What do you even say?
I read a great interview recently with the film director M. Night Shyamalan. If you remember, he was at one time one of the most successful (and profitable) young filmmakers in Hollywood. A series of hits including “The Sixth Sense” “Signs” and “Unbreakable” led him to dizzying heights of fame and fortune. Newsweek Magazine ran a cover story anointing him as – what else? – the “next Steven Spielberg.” And then things went south. His next three films all tanked at the box-office, and he found he could no longer get funding for his movies. Couldn’t get any meetings. Couldn’t, as they say, get arrested.
He describes this fallow period of his life as being very “cleansing.” And says that he found his early success “confusing,” because it taught him that he had control over things he actually did not. As he put it: “Say you’re a songwriter. You write a song, and suddenly everyone loves you! It seems like you have control over the fact that everyone loves you. But you don’t. The reason we get into trouble is because we get blurry about what we can control. Oh, my company’s doing really well, that means I can control the outcome of things! That’s actually incorrect.”
Another thing that gets us into trouble is trying to avoid failure altogether. Because as every “winner” knows – success stands atop metaphorical mountains of failure. Pixar Studios has so ingrained the idea of failure as critical to their success that creators are encouraged to “fail early and fail fast.” Or “Be wrong as fast as you can.” Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull says that people often misunderstand this way of thinking. “They think it means accept failure with dignity and move on,” he says. “The better, more subtle interpretation is that failure is a manifestation of learning and exploration. If you aren’t experiencing failure, then you are making a far worse mistake: You are being driven by the desire to avoid it.” In the world of Pixar, avoiding failure is not the key to success; it is the key to mediocrity.
And so it is with us. Our growth – as people, as parents, as companies – is inextricably linked with our degree of comfort with failure. I often think that children have a huge advantage over adults in the learning stakes because they are unafraid of making mistakes in pursuit of their ambition. Witness any baby learning to walk and what you will see is a miracle of learning and determination. They get up, fall down. Get up, fall down. At no point does the baby ever sit down and think, “Well, that was embarrassing! Maybe I should give it a rest?” By the time most of us reach adulthood, we are so well versed in pride and shame, that failure (or the fear of it) can become paralyzing. Maybe the problem is not failure, but how we think about failure.
One of the things I will sometimes do with clients is to have them write a “failure resumé.” A normal resumé touts our many achievements and successes, putting a nice healthy gloss on things. A failure resumé tracks where we went wrong, and what were the crucial lessons learned. The idea is not to embarrass anyone, but learning to properly “leverage” our failure. It also helps to remind people that the path to success is rarely ever a straight line. The truth is that we learn so much more from our failures than from our success. When we look at history, we see that all advancement in the realm of human endeavor – in art, science, sport, medicine, technology – is littered with failure. And we are better because of it.
Painful, public failures — whether it’s a presentation that didn’t quite land or a big budget Hollywood movie flopping — can be enriching, life-defining, opportunities for critical reflection and growth, if we let them. The lessons are already there for us, if we are willing to pause in the discomfort and open ourselves fully to the experience. The problem is, we all want to arrive “fully formed” – basking in the warm glow of success. But without the sometimes painful lessons of failure, there is no self-knowledge gleaned, no resilience gained.
In her 2008 commencement address to Harvard graduates, J.K. Rowling said this: “Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.”
One of the hardest things to endure in life is the regret of the “road not taken,” or opportunities passed up for fear of failure. So go ahead and make more mistakes. That’s how we get better.
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