How do you handle failure?
Honestly, I’m not the greatest at it. I tend to default to self-criticism right away, berating myself for not living up to my own expectations. In my mind, failure seems like evidence that I’m “not good enough”, that there’s something inherently wrong with me.
I know this isn’t a healthy attitude to have about failure, but up to this point I haven’t been able to figure out how to change. How do I show compassion toward myself without excusing my poor decisions? How do I hold myself accountable without becoming too rigid in my expectations?
I spent several weeks turning it over in my mind. The solution seemed like something that should be obvious—yet there was something elusive about it, something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. It was as though all the pieces of the puzzle were hovering right in front of me but I couldn’t get them to stand still long enough to figure out how to put them together.
And then, I stumbled upon a quote that made it all start to pull together:
Failure after long perseverance is much grander than never to have a striving good enough to be called a failure.George Eliot, Middlemarch
The idea here is intriguing: to fail after trying your hardest is much better and more important than never to try in the first place. As I pondered this quote and the ideas it sparked in my mind, I came to three realizations about failure, three things I have to take to heart if I am to pursue a healthier way of thinking about myself:
1. Failure is proof that you’re trying.
Imagine you’re shooting an arrow. You eye the target; you line up the arrow; you pull back the string; and, finally, you let go. The arrow soars through the air—but as you watch, it falls to the ground, several yards short of the target.
Did you fail to hit the target? Yes. But you certainly got the arrow farther than if you had never bothered to fire it in the first place.
Here’s the thing: if you don’t have any goals, you can’t fail.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines failure as “the fact of failing to effect one’s purpose.” Without a purpose, there would be nothing to strive for—and, by consequence, nothing to fail to achieve.
If you had no vision for the direction you wanted your life to take, no expectations at all, you would be completely complacent with your life as it is right now. You wouldn’t be able to fail—but neither would you be able to grow. The fact that you fail is proof that you’re actively trying to make progress in your life—and that’s encouraging.
2. Failure exists only in our perception.
Let’s say my goal is to wake up at 5 am every day. Day after day, I fail to meet my goal—instead of jumping out of bed when my alarm rings, I doze until 6:30. I feel I have failed to meet my goal, and I perceive waking up at 6:30 as “failure.”
Now let’s imagine my friend’s goal is to wake up at 7 am every day. To her, my waking up at 6:30 seems like a great success! I’m up early enough to get myself ready for the day without having to rush out the door; in her eyes, that’s a success.
That’s the thing about failure: it’s completely subjective. There is no wake-up time that classifies the person who gets up that time as having “failed”—whether or not waking up at a given time is a failure depends entirely on our perception of our actions.
This is wonderful news, and here’s why: because “failure” is based entirely on my perception, it cannot define my character. Waking up at 6:30 makes me neither lazy nor diligent: it is not in any way a reflection of who I am.
3. The perception of failure shows that I care.
So, let’s say I failed to get up at 5 am like I’d intended. I’m getting up at 6:30 and, in my mind, I’ve failed. Even though I know it’s only a “failure” because I perceive it to be so, it still doesn’t feel great. What’s the point of perceiving a failure if the entire concept of failing is subjective anyway?
Here’s the thing I’m just now starting to grasp: the fact that I perceive my actions as “falling short” of my goal, and the fact that it bothers me, is evidence that I care.
Failed at getting up “on time”? I care about using my time well, even the first few hours of the day.
Failed to avoid sugar to the extent I wanted to? I care about taking care of my body and feeding it what it needs.
Failed to text my friend on her birthday? I care about relationships, and people are a high priority for me.
Instead of beating myself up because I feel like I’ve failed, what if I focus instead on what those feelings reveal about me? In a world that sometimes seems to overflow with apathy, I care about my life, about other people, about striving to do better and be better. There’s no way that’s not a good thing.
Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.Winston Churchill
Do we still need to adjust our expectations for ourselves? Maybe. (In my case, almost definitely). It’s true that we fail less when we set the bar a little lower, and while that concept rankles me, when our expectations for ourselves are unrealistic, we’re wise to let some of that pressure go.
But even when I lower the bar—when I let go of the goals that don’t really need to be priorities right now—there will always be times when I don’t quite live up to the standard I set for myself. There are always times we fall a little short.
And when those times come, instead of beating myself up for not succeeding, I’d like my “failure” to remind me of these three things:
- I’m trying.
- This experience does not define me.
- I care—and that’s what really matters.
How do you respond to failure in your own life? Share your thoughts and suggestions in the comments below.