Is it Okay to Fail? 3 Simple Steps to Move Past Failure.


Mistakes and failure.  We often hesitate for fear of making a mistake, and no one wants to be labeled a failure.  Is it okay to fail?

We’re taught early that failure is bad.  It’s something to fear.  “Failure is not an option” is a cultural mantra. Yet,  failure is essential.  Mistakes are inevitable. After all, to err is human.  It’s okay to fail, and okay to make mistakes.  It’s what you do after a failure that counts.

Do you curl up in a ball and replay the failure over and over in your mind?  Do you give up and walk away?  Or do you dust yourself off and give it another go, more determined than ever?

Fear of Failure

Weather we’re doing an experiment, taking a test, interviewing for a job, or just living life, at some point things are not going to go the way we planned (or hoped.)

Our schooling penalizes us for mistakes, and or grades in school reflect our mistakes.  Too often, the focus isn’t on actually learning, it’s on not making mistakes.  This fosters a fear of making mistakes that often paralyses.  It can lead to inaction.  Is it better to just do nothing and risk not making a mistake?  We know the adage; No risk, no reward.

Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.

Theodore Roosevelt

We need to overcome the fear of failure so we can achieve.  After all, we miss 100% of the shots we don’t take.

So, once we get ourselves past the point of paralysis that we take the risk, how should we handle failure?

1. Take Ownership

You need to acknowledge failure.  Claim it.  Own it.

“It is a painful thing to look at your own trouble and know that you yourself, and no one else, has made it.” – Sophocles

Jocko Willink, a decorated Navy SEAL officer and 20 year veteran outlines this concept in his book Extreme Ownership. It’s a book about leadership and accepting full responsibility for everything in your world. Especially failures.

Ownership is not about laying blame, but accepting we’re in control and sometimes things don’t go the way we plan.  Even though we cannot always control the outcome, we can control our reaction.

Failure can serve as redirection to get you closer to your destination. The path you were on wasn’t the way, and this is an opportunity to better position yourself to where you want to be.

And, frankly, sometimes failure can be more of a harsh wake up call than a nudge. It may bruise your ego a bit (okay, sometimes a lot), but the world won’t end, the sun will rise tomorrow, and you’ll greet the new day being just a little bit wiser.

In relation to STEM (and science in particular) the Scientific Method is all about mistakes and failure. It starts to break down without failure, since experiments are hardly 100% successful the first time. Hypothesizing, testing (and often failing), and analyzing. Rinse and repeat. What can we learn?

2. Look for the Lesson

What does this failure tell you? I’ve always believed a mistake is only truly a mistake if there is no lesson in it.  If you can take a mistake or failure and see it for what it is, there is usually something to learn from it. 

We’re not looking for “it was all part of the plan” or “everything happens for a reason” here. If that helps make it through, great, but we’re looking for a little more.

We want to drill into specifically why things didn’t go according to plan. (There was a plan, right?) What tripped everything up? A lapse in judgement?  A misstep or miscalculation? A blind spot? Rushing? All of the above?

Clear Glass Light Bulb

It may be painful or embarrassing, but spend some time here.  Don’t wallow in it, analyze it.  Take it apart and dissect it. 

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

 Thomas Edison, on creating the light bulb

It’s important to understand what went wrong so you can learn from failure.  Sometimes the point of failure is screamingly obvious, sometimes not so much.  Take the time you need to learn from your failure, and take something forward with you when it is time to –

3. Move on

So, that happened.  You can’t change it.  You can’t take it back. 

What you can change and control is your perspective and your thoughts. 

Was it a soul crushing failure that will forever be a black mark on your very existence, or was it a bump in the road that slows you down a bit and makes you think before you continue on your way.  What you choose to think about it is what it becomes. 

Make your peace with it.  Let it go.  You’ve learned a valuable lesson and taken what you need from the experience.  You’ve endured another “character building” experience. You have more information. You can make a better plan. Now move on.

How to Explain Failure and Mistakes to a Child (and ourselves)

How do we explain the concept that it’s okay to fail and mistakes and failure are opportunities to learn?   There are a few books we recommend that deftly introduce this idea into the story.

The Book of Mistakes

by Corinna Luyken

The Book of Mistakes

Through a series of illustrations throughout the book, author and illustrator Corinna Luyken shows how what at first glance seems a mistake can be a gift. 

Through the book’s drawings we see an ink blotch, a smudge, a body part drawn out of proportion. When first viewed obviously look like mistakes, but become an integral part of the style and vision of the book and the story itself.  Without some of these “mistakes” we see unfold across the pages, the overall style and artwork may have been something a little less grand.

This book is a great way to introduce mistakes and failure to a child. Once done, you can’t take it back. So, what can you do with it?  Where do you go from here and what has the failure taught you. Can you actually build on the failure to make something even better?

Reading this book sparked a random memory for me. I remember art class in 2nd grade.  We were doing watercolors, and had to create a scene within a circle.  I was working on an alligator sitting on a rock.  I was about to paint the sky and water blue, when I accidentally splotched a huge drop of orange paint in the sky.  I tried to wipe it off, but the color had already soaked in. 

My sky was ruined.  My 7 year old self was crushed, until the art teacher pointed out that the sky is not always blue, especially at sunset.  So, I embraced my splotch and painted my alligator with an orange sunset sky.  The result had much more punch than a boring old blue sky, and I was happy with the finished painting. Working through that one little mistake changed the way I accepted conventions, and triggered me to look to search for opportunity within mistakes.

Bob Ross, landscape painter extraordinaire, was famous for saying, “We don’t make mistakes, just happy little accidents.”

Rosie Revere, Engineer

Rosie Revere, Engineer

by Andrea Beaty

When budding inventor and engineer Rosie crashes here flying machine, not only is the machine crushed, but so is Rosie’s spirit.  She loses faith in herself and resolves not to try again.  That is until her great aunt gives her the perfect words of encouragement:

Your brilliant first flop was a raging success!  Come on, let’s get busy and on to the next!

This book perfectly exemplifies experiencing failure, learning from it, and using those lessons to move on and make something better.  “Life might have its failures, but this is not it.  The only true failure can come if you quit.”

Mistakes That Worked

by Charlotte Foltz Jones

Mistakes That Worked

Mistakes That Worked chronicles many things we take for granted finding their origins as mistakes. From favorite food to Post It Notes, or life changers such a penicillin and X-Rays, it’s astounding how many things were unexpected (and unintended) results.

What else was born from a mistake or failure?

You’d be surprised.

What do the Experts Say? Quotes about Failure and Mistakes

I’d be hard pressed to find an example of someone successful that hasn’t failed somewhere along their journey to success.

Don’t be afraid to fail:

“If you’re not failing every now and again, it’s a sign you’re not doing anything very innovative.” – Woody Allen

“A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new.” – Albert Einstein

One who fears failure limits his activities. Failure is only the opportunity to more intelligently begin again. – Henry Ford

“Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.” —Henry Ford

“If you set your goals ridiculously high and it’s a failure, you will fail above everyone else’s success.” —James Cameron

“There is no failure. Only feedback.” – Robert G. Allen

“We need to accept that we won’t always make the right decisions, that we’ll screw up royally sometimes – understanding that failure is not the opposite of success, it’s part of success.” – Arianna Huffington

Learn from it and move on:

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” –  Winston Churchill

“No man ever became great or good except through many and great mistakes.” – William Gladstone

“The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Failure comes part and parcel with invention. It’s not optional. We understand that and believe in failing early and iterating until we get it right.” – Jeff Bezos

What is your mindset?

“I don’t believe in failure. It is not failure if you enjoyed the process.” —Oprah Winfrey

“If you learn from defeat, you haven’t really lost.” —Zig Ziglar

Conclusion: Is it Okay to Fail?

If you’re troubling yourself obsessing over the question, “Is it okay to fail?” the answer is yes, absolutely. It is not only okay to fail, it’s inevitable. It’s part of being human. It’s part of innovation. If you’re not failing at something, you’re probably not accomplishing anything.

Failure is normal, but still uncomfortable.

What matters is how we handle failure. Do we let failure accumulate and continue carrying the weight, or do we lighten our load, leave the failure itself behind, and move our wiser and more educated, selves forward?

Sometimes it’s easier said than done, and we’ve noted a few books that can help us acknowledge failure and take ownership, look for the lesson, and move on.

We’ve heard from some successful people and what they have to say about failure.

So go and get out there. Explore. Live your life to its fullest. Mistakes and failure will often be the signposts that show you the way.

hevanmiller

H. Evan Miller is as dedicated to fatherhood as he is to life long learning. Musician, Photographer, Educator, Consultant, Entrepreneur, Blogger, and founder of STEMtropolis, where you can share his adventures in STEM and STEAM with his family.

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