The Necessity of Failure

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From my earliest memories, I never wanted to fail. From getting the "right" answer in school, the highest batting average in Little League, the approval of my parents for good grades, and the highest performance ratings from supervisors at work, earning a reputation for success has been a driving force in my life. People seemed, to me, to have little tolerance for those who fail, and that made sense. Being human, of course, I have certainly been nowhere near perfect, but I always viewed those failures as blots on my life's ledger. The goal was to avoid them. When that was not possible, I employed rationalization or forgetting as my self-defense. It is only now that I recognize that I should have welcomed - even celebrated - many of my failures.

Looking back, which as Kierkegaard said is the only way we understand life, I can see that when I demanded self-perfection in school, I never really learned what I liked. Since I "had" to get good grades, I got them. But when you are good in every subject, you judge success by numbers not passion. School became a required route to professional achievement and monetary compensation, not a vehicle for self-exploration and choice, much less joy. It took years out of school to find what I really liked to do and learn.

My stance on failure also formed a protective shield that too often turned into a refusal to try. "Am I going to be good at this?" was the question I asked before deciding to attempt anything new. Many artistic and musical skills, not to mention athletic ones, that might have enriched my life died as abortions at almost the first whiff of failure, imagined or real.

Even the success I attained in life blinded me to the fact that it was the result of no small measure of failure. With hubris, I hung on to the illusion that I succeeded through a series of fault-free steps. But I recognize now that each gain of advancing competence came with some mixture of getting it wrong. Failure was a necessary precursor to success. If I had never failed, I would have never learned. I would have just kept repeating the same unacknowledged errors, mistaking my energizer bunny running in circles for moving forward.

Had I seen this sooner, I could have sought and made better use of coaches and mentors rather than acting as if I didn't need them or didn't want them because they might see that, in fact, I was not perfect already. I might also have learned that the feeling of failure is just an emotion, not a statement about who I am. I might have come to enjoy that feeling as a road sign that I was advancing rather than as a roadblock whose emotional baggage served as a detour on the road to a fulfilling life.

Failure, I can see now, is as essential to joy in life as is success - not its opposite but its handmaiden. Just as a summer storm leads to a rainbow, the downside of failure leads to the upside of achievement. Would the sweetness of the latter be as great, in either case, without being preceded by the former?

Attending a concert of young people recently, I was struck by the precision and passion with which each musician played. Their soaring notes lifted the souls of the audience. I can see now that their success came with hundreds if not thousands of hours of practice, much of that consisting of mistakes. They started on that journey with no skill - just desire. They had the courage to endure mistakes as the price of later perfection, knowing that perfection itself is a goal almost always more distant than wherever they were. They were not afraid to fail and were rewarded not just with success but the satisfaction that comes with the building of their character as well as their competence.

We may not like failure. We may abhor it in others as well as ourselves. But we need it if we are to lead productive, meaningful and balanced lives.