It does not feel good. It does not look good.
But failure is good.
You know, one of the great things about writing a blog is that I get to cover what I need to hear the most. And that’s great, because I suck at dealing with failure. I really, really hate it, and if left to my own devices, I avoid failure at all costs because I like to feel smart and good at things. Is that so wrong? Is it??
Well, it’s definitely not a good strategy, because not only is failure woven inextricably into the fabric of life, it’s actually something we should seek out. Here’s why.
Failure Is a Prerequisite for Success
The only way to be good at something is to be bad at it for a long time first.
And the more we care about something, the harder it is to deal with being bad at it.
I’m a musician, and my main instrument is the trumpet. I was bad at the trumpet for a very long time. And you can’t be bad at the trumpet quietly or subtly, as everyone who’s ever lived with me will tell you. Piano? Sure. A novice pianist will play a bunch of wrong notes, but they’ll still be pretty, tinkly piano notes. Some of the sounds I made as a developing trumpet player were nothing short of hellish.
Another example: computer programming. If you want to become a great programmer, if you want to write clean, elegant code, there’s only one way: write a lot of pretty bad code. It’s no fun to be awful at something important to you, but there’s no other way to get better.
Or let’s say that you’re a nurse who’s just starting out in the profession. You have the knowledge and the huge collection of different skills a nurse needs, but you don’t yet have the practiced, I’ve-done-this-a-thousand-times confidence that years of experience bring. You’ve just started your first job, and you want to become a seasoned veteran. A true pro.
We’ve all had a nurse like that, right? Maybe we’re in for blood work, we’re a little nervous, and we get lucky: we get the nurse who’s done thousands and thousands of sticks, who’s so good that he has us talking about the new Star Wars movie before we even see the needle and is done before we realize he’s been distracting us on purpose.
How do you think he got so good? I’d wager that he started out with shaking, sweaty hands and missed the vein more times than he can count. His total mastery of his craft is the product of many little failures and the resulting improvement.
The myth of the overnight success is just that: a myth.
Failure Teaches, Success Congratulates
When we succeed at something, we usually don’t learn much.
Isn’t that interesting?
Success feels great. It just doesn’t give us much new information. In fact, it only teaches us one thing:
“What you were doing worked.”
Failure, on the other hand, teaches us plenty (more than we want to know, usually). It’s a harsh teacher, but boy, does it bring the knowledge. Here are some things it teaches:
- “That approach won’t work. Try a different way.”
- “Your daily habits need adjusting.”
- “This is going to take longer than you thought.”
- “You’re almost there! Give it another shot.”
Success is sweet, and it’s defintely the ultimate goal of any activity. But “Congratulations, you did it!” is only useful as a reward. It doesn’t help us improve.
Learning to Deal with Failure
If we want to improve, we can’t avoid failure. There’s just not any other way to make significant progress. If failure’s going to be around, we might as well get comfortable with it.
So, how can we get comfortable with it? We can do a few things:
- Choose to focus on what we can learn from any given failure instead of focusing on the disappointment. This needs to be a conscious choice, as our brains will want to do the exact opposite. Remember that we’re in control of what we focus on.
- Ask ourselves “How big of a deal is this, really?” In the grand scheme of things, almost nothing is as important as it seems at first.
- Plan the next attempt right away. Fail, learn a lesson, and move on quickly. No need to fixate on it.
The upside of failure is too huge to ignore. Make friends with it so you can reap the benefits!