Few words can cause us to feel so repelled and turned off as failure. More often than not we try to avoid the reality of failure altogether. No one wants to fail; no one wants to be linked with a failure. Our closest encounter with the concept now is in the cyber community of social media: the banal, thin #fail. Everything from a photo of tomatoes on display at a grocery store with a banner reading “Watermelons” to throwing an interception trying to pass the ball instead of running it with the best running back in the league to win the Super Bowl is a hashtag fail. We’ve trivialized the concept, and thereby haughtily, but naively, put the stamp of #fail on obvious blunders. Lots of things are easy targets for sneering reactions. Are we critical and thorough enough to include our own flops among the targets? Can we do it without twisting it into a humblebrag? Maybe we dance in this ankle-deep conceptual pool of #fail to avoid dealing with what failure means in a deeper way—especially the real, debilitating failures we’ve encountered ourselves.
Few of us do well with actual failure. Failure happens whenever the most tragic, destructive, terminal outcome of something in our life comes true. The ground we’re standing on crumbles apart. And, as a result, we become disorientated or demoralized. Failure can be literal or metaphorical stumbles. It can be large or small. Failure can catch us by surprise—seemingly lassoing us from far away. Or it can be the result of our own errors and bad decisions catching up with us. In high school, I tried to show up to classes one day battling illness, only to end up vomiting in a main hallway between periods. Dozens of students smirked while hugging the wall to move past the scene I had made. I felt paralyzed and alone–ready to hide in the nearest custodial closet.
It’s amusing now, but most failure isn’t—in the moment or in hindsight. We applied for that position or degree and got rejected outright. We got fired. We were told we don’t have what it takes. We worked on that for 20 years, and it was laughed off in 20 seconds. We struck out. We didn’t even make the team. The marriage is over. Real failure really happens—to all of us.
In an age of digital algorithms and automation, we work hard to remove the roadblocks, trip-ups, and discomforts of life. They hurt; they wear us down; they make us feel like the universe resists us doing and being what we want. It makes sense that we would develop apps that seem to miraculously match you to your soulmate so you can circumvent the awkwardness and heartaches of hookups and breakups. It makes sense that we would create self-driving vehicles that can’t crash into each other or slide off the road in inclement weather. It makes sense to research various medical treatments so that our intellectual and physical capacities don’t degenerate and let us down as we age. We look for fail-safes, and fail-safes for the fail-safes.
But we live in a social and literal universe that tend toward deterioration—too vast and complex to automate and eliminate all the chaos and unpleasantries out of existence. Even machines–or perhaps machines most of all—fail. Some failure, some breakdown of our lives or the things around us, is inevitable.
What should we do when it happens?
Sometimes we need to mope for a bit. We need to turn on some Bon Iver, crawl under the covers, order Chinese food for delivery, and have an extra glass of wine. We think we’ll hide out while the failure exhausts itself elsewhere. But at some point we have to figure out a way to move on. There is a world out there waiting for us to become some kind of protagonist in it. If we stay buried in despair then our failure has put us into narrative purgatory. We run the risk of slipping into a listless abyss and never getting out. But this, unlike failure itself, is not inevitable.
In any well-told story, failure is the part where things are about to get good. Our lives are dynamic, open narratives—unfolding as we go, with climaxes and conclusions yet to be determined. Failure of any sort becomes a split of possible roads. Which one will our story proceed down? The failure, the narrative break, has already happened. We were knocked down. The door closed in our face. It’s shitty. But we can choose what happens next. The abyss is one place it can go. Making sure the story actually gets good is another.
Failure has a way of forcing us to refocus if we let it. It strips away the inessential. When I vomited in the hallway, it was immediately obvious who my true friends were. They didn’t smirk and walk away; they were genuinely empathetic and reassuring. Most failure is more profound than public vomiting: things like divorce, job loss, and disheartening medical diagnoses. When those happen, the essential stands out. Sitting in a hospital room with a loved one quickly cuts out the extraneous.
Some failures happen in hopeful vocational or education pursuits, and often show that we need to work harder or smarter. Or perhaps we need to give up on that pursuit entirely to give ourselves over to a more meaningful one. Not everyone is meant to win The Voice or be the next Steve Jobs. We have to find the dream that matches our own raw abilities.
Are you caught up in something that you’re pretty good at, but if you were honest there’s something else that you would love to do? Eventually, you’re going to lose traction and fail at what you’re pretty good at because your heart’s not fully in it. It’s a shadow life of the one you could live. When that happens, will you continue with what’s comfortable, or risk taking the road that would bring real worth and fulfillment to your story? When we start to choose to live intentionally, we can fail small but grow small. Or we can potentially fail big but realize the deepest hopes for our life’s trajectory.
It’s a bit mysterious how it can be possible, but there is an upside to failure if we are able to avoid the limbo of the abyss. If we own the failure, let it wash over us or hit us with its best shot, and then move forward, we become a stronger, more grounded person. We develop more self-confidence, determination, and centeredness. We might call it resiliency.
It doesn’t take a whole lot of effort and tension to eat good food in moderation so that your body weight is lean. But it takes the microtrauma of weightlifting or resistance exercises to actually build muscle. With cellular tears comes new growth and strength. Without the microtrauma, we remain weak, static, and perhaps even bored or apathetic. Such lethargy is not all that different in kind from floating in failure’s abyss. In both, we are less than our full selves. To live a life where the story keeps getting good means being exposed to life’s microtrauma and failure. Through it, we develop a resiliency that becomes denser all the time.
In college, I took a Classics texts class where all we did is read aloud and translate. Each person took a turn with a section. Ahead of each session, I would write down every vocabulary word and verb conjugation that wasn’t easy to remember. This way, I would always be able to state the right answer when asked, even if I didn’t know it off the top of my head. But this meant that weeks later, and especially now years later, I do not have a recall that even comes close to fluency. You don’t go to school because you already know all the answers before class starts; you go to learn how to find answers and hold on to them. None of us learns Matrix-style through instantaneous upload to our brain, and I don’t think I would ever want to. Learning requires the possibility, and sometimes the realization of failure. I never fail now to spell esoteric, because I misspelled it in front of hundreds of people at the city spelling bee as a shorter and squeakier me. That failure strengthened my budding resiliency, and taught me a lot about hard work and learning through life as you go.
No sensible person tries to fail on purpose. Only a fool would. But when it happens we can use it to grow the muscles of resiliency. To sharpen our focus on what we should properly dive into. And deepen our determination to see ourselves through the next chapters of our life’s narrative. We cut out the inessential: excess stress, worry about our chances of success or making all the right decisions, obsessing about what others will think, the people who don’t have our back, what’s just fluff. This can only happen on the road that embraces the reality of failure. It’s not a road we naturally take. But it’s the way of strength training our selves. We can’t, and shouldn’t try to innovate it out of existence, nor hashtag it into triviality.