You’ve no doubt heard stories about Thomas Edison and his protracted journey to inventing the light bulb. After he’d failed thousands of times in his quest, someone asked him why he didn’t give up. “I have not failed,” he replied. “I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.” Now, I’m not suggesting that anyone needs to fail 10,000 times to succeed, but like Edison, in my own struggle for success, I have also discovered that failure can actually be a very good thing.
But because “failure” elicits a sinking feeling in most people, we have to redefine the word. Instead of thinking of it as a negative, it is critical to redefine failure as a necessary part of growth and to come to see it as a positive.
We innately understood this as kids. Back then, we failed all the time: at learning something in math, at getting a boy or girl to like us, at being picked for a sports team or a role in the school play. For the most part, we accepted it as part of life, picked ourselves up and moved on.
Yet something changed for most of us when we became adults. Even though we may theoretically want to keep growing and learning, we aren’t nearly as willing to try something new, because of our fear of failure. We somehow lost the understanding that failure is a necessary part of growth and that we will bounce back. The result: We avoid trying new things to eliminate the risk of failure.
Why is failure so scary? That depends on the person. For some of us, it means public embarrassment; for others, loss of self-esteem or looking weak or vulnerable. In our society, where success is worshipped, it can be really hard to stand alone and take that leap into the unknown.
In her bestselling book, The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin postulates that to be happy, we have to be striving for something, whether mastery of a new skill or embarking on a new career. She believes, as do many psychologists, that we are at our happiest when trying new things and pushing ourselves. Yet because pushing ourselves to do new things causes discomfort, she came up with a way to counteract this fear.
“I told myself, ‘I enjoy the fun of failure,’” she writes in the book. “ ‘It’s fun to fail,’ I kept repeating. ‘If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.’ The words the fun of failure released my sense of dread.”
I agree with Rubin that to be happy we must keep growing and learning. But my response to the dread of failure is a little different. I ask myself, “What’s the worst that can happen if I fail at this?” Then I make a list of all the answers — every last one I can think of. Then I review each answer and decide if I can live with that result. If the answer is yes, I go for it.
I did this very thing when I was planning to launch my first big women’s conference, which I wanted to call “Imagine … Then Do It.” I was terrified. So I asked myself, “What’s the worst that could happen?” The most unnerving answer was that no one would show up.
Following my own advice, I played that out by taking it to the next level: And if no one shows up, then what? A: I will be embarrassed. B. I will lose X amount of money. C. I will be really disappointed that I worked this hard and it didn’t work.
I pondered these potential outcomes and decided I could handle each one. Plus I realized that I’d be more disappointed if I didn’t try at all. Then bingo! There was my permission to go for it. I’m happy to report we sold out that first conference with 250 women.
We’re in some good company in the “if at first you don’t succeed” category. Let me leave you with some facts about someone you know and probably admire.
- He failed in business in ’31.
- He ran for state legislator and lost in ’32.
- He tried business again in ’33 and failed again.
- His sweetheart died in ’35.
- He had a nervous breakdown in ’36.
- He was defeated for Congress in ’48, defeated when he ran for the Senate in ’55, and defeated for the vice presidency of the United States in ’56,
- He ran for Senate again in ’58 and lost.
- But then in 1860, he was elected 16th president of the United States. The man: Abraham Lincoln.
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