By: Michelle Overman LMFT
Everybody loves a winner. This expression is truer now than ever. Social media drives us to present ourselves as winners by burying our mistakes and refusing to acknowledge they ever happened. This message is driven home by the cautionary tales of those who fell short. For example, consider:
Michael, who was cut from his high school varsity team because he was “too small to play at that level”.
Vera, who failed at the one thing she spent the first 20 years of her life working toward.
Isaac, who struggled in school and failed to successfully run his family’s farm.
Walter, who was fired from his newspaper job because he “lacked imagination and had no good ideas”.
Joanna, who lost her job and husband, and accepted welfare to support her child.
All of these people were considered utter failures by today’s standards.
Failure is a terribly loaded word. Even the mention of it invites unwanted memories and a sour stomach. Our world is highly connected these days thanks to technologies that bridge thousands of miles in a few seconds with the click of a button. However, that connectiveness presents us a wider range of “successful” people to measure ourselves against. It makes our flaws, mistakes, and failures feel even worse. We cower behind masks of perfection and happiness to keep our failures hidden. In doing so, we hide from ourselves, hoping to avoid the hurt and pain that can come from making mistakes. No one enjoys failure, especially in a world where comparison is thrust in our faces every day. However, running from our mistakes robs us of a profound truth: failure is a gift. How does failure enrich us, you might ask? Here are five ways.
1. Failure relieves the pressure of perfectionism. Maintaining perfection is exhausting. While we must set goals and reach for the best, striving for perfection can debilitate us. The fear of failure can cause excessive anxiety that prevents us from taking necessary risks. Consider a team on a lengthy winning streak, and the pressure they feel to keep the streak going. Once the streak is broken and the pressure is lifted, the players can finally regain the freedom to be themselves rather than living as slaves to the idea of perfection.
2. Failure fosters resilience. Resilience is the ability to adapt to stress and adversity. Failing, messing up, and making mistakes can be very trying and hurtful, and even rock the very core of who we are. In those moments, we have the option of succumbing to defeat or overcoming and pressing forward. When we choose to overcome adversity, we develop more resilience, becoming stronger and more capable than we were before. Fostering resilience through failure allows us to handle our future mistakes and difficulties.
3. Failure can motivate. Many people are motivated by the idea of success or reward at the end of a long journey. Can we actually be motivated by failure? Absolutely! It is easy to view failure as yet another experience that tells us what we cannot do. What would happen if our failures became our motivation? Failure can light a fire in us unlike any other. No one wants to make the same mistakes repeatedly. Failure can provide the drive to keep going in the face of past defeats.
4. Failure brings wisdom. There is nothing quite like learning from mistakes. While failure can be painful, mistakes are nearly always informative. Success is rarely achieved after the first try. It takes practice to correct the issues we faced before. Although constructive criticism is very difficult to hear, it is of great value in helping us move forward. Learning from our mistakes can make our failures worthwhile because we find some value even in incredibly difficult situations.
5. Failure creates community. When facing painful and challenging times, having a community of support can be vital. Making mistakes and facing failure can provide those opportunities to seek support from others, and to identify our truest friends and wisest mentors. When we fail, our community witnesses our humanity and vulnerability. To have supporters reach out during those dark times creates closeness that cannot easily be replicated. Such relationship moments can impact us in profound ways that transcend the darkness.
It is no secret that failure is something we all wish to avoid. The fear of failure can even paralyze us at times. However, we can reduce the power of that fear by looking for the positives and using failure as a motivating force. Who knows? We might become the next story of the “failure” who rises from the ashes to achieve triumph. Remember the example failures from earlier? The kid too small for his varsity team was Michael Jordan who became one of the greatest basketball players of all time. Vera Wang failed to make the Olympic figure skating team, but is now one of the world’s premier designers. The failed farmer, Issac Newton, was sent off to Cambridge University where he became one of the most influential scientists in history. The unimaginative Walter is better known to us as the magic man, Walt Disney. And Joanna, AKA J.K. Rowling, rebounded to write Harry Potter and remake the literary world.
Making mistakes, messing up, and failing can give us precious gifts. We just have to be willing to recognize the gifts and welcome them.