Why Failure is Always an Opportunity

I’ve written before about not making a cult out of failure. How there can be an obsession with failing that seems to place too much value on what we learn from failure. I talked about how it can be problematic to focus too much on failure when success is in fact be the greatest teacher most of the time. Whether you call it “failing fast” or something else, I remain convinced that, for the most part, we should focus on success rather than failure.

So what happens when we do fail? Massively. Undeniably. Something went wrong, and there is little but a smoldering wreckage and a fair bit of shame, or pain, or loss to ponder?

Is failure the end of the world, or just the end of something that needed to be over and done with.

Recently, I’ve been thinking that failure can be a signal that a particular course of action, or a particular set of behaviors isn’t cutting it anymore. Failure is the signal that what you were doing is a dead end. Failure is feedback that if you want to be successful, something needs to change, and you’ll need to figure out what that happens to be, and make the adjustment.

There is an entire section on this in Napoleon Hill’s book, Outwitting the DevilIf you’re struggling to come to terms with some form of failure in your life, I cannot suggest that book highly enough.

robert-downey-jr-mugshotFrom Heroin to Movie Star

An example I’m partial to is Robert Downey Jr. whose heroin addiction nearly ruined his life. He lost everything and ended up in prison – a golden Hollywood boy on the front pages for drugs. Life brought him some failure in order to tell him, “this course of action won’t cut it any longer.”

Downey listened and then climbed back from time in prison and rehab to the global stage with the Iron Man trilogy and The Avengers, some of the highest-grossing movies of their time.

Talking about his time behind bars, Downey said,

When the door clicks shut, then you are safe. There is nothing aside from a rogue correctional officer that can do you harm if you have the right cellie. You are actually in the safest place on Earth. Safe from the intruders.”

Downey isn’t talking about being safe from intruders or things that go bump in the night. He is talking about being safe from his addiction.

Addicts will tell you about the peace that comes from being locked up where their demons cannot find them. The bars served Downey as the discipline and self-denial that he couldn’t find in himself. The bars kept him from finding more heroin. They kept him safe from his demons, and so he felt safe.

The bars represent the feedback failure offers us. The bars are the signpost that alerts us when we have reached a dead end. There is no way forward. It’s time to do something new, and experience rebirth. It’s an opportunity to be the phoenix.

From Layoffs to Startups

When I was a couple of years out of school, I took a job with a consulting firm that did software requirements gathering. At the time, I didn’t know enough about the nature of software requirements to recognize that it wasn’t going to be a good fit for me. There was too much work behind a computer and not enough interacting with the outside world. I hated it, and as a result I wasn’t good at it.

I found myself working 16 hour days to keep up with work that everyone else seemed to be able to just do. I felt myself failing night after night, miserable, but unwilling to give up and quit. This went on for months until the company and I parted ways in a round of tech layoffs. They picked me to go because I clearly wasn’t as good as anyone else at the work. I had failed.

I vividly remember my feet hitting the pavement outside the office with a feeling I couldn’t shake that, “this is the best thing that happened to me this year.” On paper, that gut feeling didn’t make any sense. I’d lost a well-paying job (2 times my previous salary), and a promising career track in product management. But I’d spent nearly every day there there miserable, trying to figure out why things just weren’t working.

The money and the potential career just weren’t worth it. I didn’t love the work, but had things worked out differently, I might have ended up muddling through my career that way. But instead, the layoff set me free to find my next gig.

About six months later, I drove back by the company’s office on the way home from a new gig that would shape my life, and ultimately bring me to San Francisco.

Failure is feedback.

Failure is an opportunity to evolve and become a better version of yourself. Failure is the start of something brand new. When we accept failure as a sign that we need to change course, it becomes a tool. When we look back at the times we’ve failed and ultimately ended up in a 10x better place, we gain confidence to pursue our success and fear failure less and less.

If all failure brings is feedback and opportunity to 10x our current standing, we learn we have less to fear from failure. We learn to believe that we can do the impossible: see failure (when it comes) as a blessing.

Seeing failure as a blessing is incredibly hard when failure and shame tend to go hand-in-hand. Success brings acclaim and glory. Failure brings scorn and shame, and if we listen to those emotions too closely, we may not pick ourselves back up again to try the next thing.

Shame is a powerful emotion that tells us to stop doing something. Shame makes us want to hide our faces from the consequences of our actions. Shame can keep us from getting out of bed for weeks on end. It’s easier to start the next episode of Game of Thrones on Netflix than to face the shame from failure.

Sometimes prison bars are comforting because they are the full force of our shame coupled with a physical barrier that prevents us from repeating our failure.

But if we knew we weren’t going to repeat our mistakes, we might be able to accept them as opportunities to grow. Touching the hot stove may leave a scar, but that serves as the remainder of the place of our failure – the place we don’t want to return.

Five Stages of Failure

I think there are about five stages of failure that take us from that first moment of failing, through to integration of what we learned into our identity.

1. Sadness

Sadness is the feeling of loss. Sometimes failing removes an opportunity from our lives; one we’ll never be able to re-claim. This is incredibly depressing, particularly if a failure means having to close down a business or losing a job. It’s impossible to turn back the clock and make different decisions.

The only respite comes from a sense of inevitability. Failure means the way we were living was never going to get us what we wanted in the first place. The only solution is to leave behind behaviors that were holding us back. The sadness can be replaced by a sense of optimism that we’re moving forward towards greater success. We can become something new.

2. Anger

Sadness can give way into anger at just about everyone. When something goes wrong, it’s an easy solution to blame everyone but ourselves. That doesn’t help. Anger directed at anyone else allows us to be the victim of our circumstances rather than accepting responsibility for our lives. If we’re the victim, we can’t learn from our mistakes, which means we can’t move past the failure. Holding on to anger at anyone, even ourselves is a distraction that keeps us from moving forward.

3. Acceptance

Acceptance happens when we acknowledge the sadness and anger over our failure. We can accept our situation as a starting place. Once we’ve begun to accept where we are, we stop holding onto the past, and can start focusing on the future. But acknowledging the current state of affairs allows us to simply be where we are rather than focusing on where we could have or should have been. We first acknowledge where we are and then we are free move onto the next thing.

4. Gratitude

Gratitude means we start finding ourselves grateful for the opportunity to be in a new place. We’re grateful for the lessons earned along the way, and have faith that we’ll seize the opportunity to grow into the next phase of our lives. The gratitude is for the chance to leave a place that no longer served us so that we can find somewhere better. We have an unshakeable sense that we’re on to bigger and better.

5. Peace

Gratitude brings us to peace. Peace lets us examine the past in a weird state of contradiction. We can look back through mistakes that were made and examine them for lessons, but rather than feel stress or anxiety, we are at peace. We’ve let go of the fear and shame, and see the past as both the end of something unhealthy, and the beginning of something new.

Failure is Re-Birth

Failure is something to find immense gratitude in. It is a new chance at life. It’s your opportunity to grow into the next version of who you are. It’s your chance at an exit from where you are, and the time to discover where you will be soon.

Failure is the brick wall that tells you the most blessed message you, as a thoughtful, caring person could ever hope to receive – this isn’t going to work. You need to figure out a better way to live.

And seeking a better way to live is the only way to really live. Be grateful for those opportunities when they come at you. And if failure’s brick wall pays a visit, find it within yourself to be forgiving of your mistakes, admit what they might have been, and accept the opportunity to correct them, and set your course anew.

The wind will rise to greet you, and your sails will carry you far.

We can end with a quote from Winston Churchill.

Success consists in stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.”

Hope this helps.

Austin W. Gunter

Austin Gunter

I’m Austin. I live in San Francisco, practice Tai Chi, have rheumatoid arthritis, listen to a lot of loud music, and host a lot of dinner parties. Want more? Start here.

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