Failing Well, Failing Forward

January 16, 2019

We are all failures-at least all the best of us are.

J.M. Barrie


Let me ask you this question, “How do you define failure? 


I searched numerous definitions on the internet:


•  not performing a duty or expected action.


•  a person or thing that proves to be unsuccessful.


•  failure is to be viewed as the opposite to success.   


Synonyms: defeat, wreck, catastrophe, blunder, flop, disaster, calamity. 


Negative connotation after negative connotation after negative connotation.


Sometimes what we call ‘failure’ is really just that necessary struggle called learning. With a more positive perspective on failure, the more appropriate questions that should be addressed are: 


Can we avoid failure altogether?


What does failure really mean?


How do you view failure?


What does it mean to fail well?


Charles Manz writes, “Failure is not something to be feared. It contains a positive challenge for successful living. Today’s failures contain the seeds of tomorrow’s greatest successes. The first step to mastering the art of failure successfully is to come to see failure and success in a whole new light.” In Japan, broken objects are often repaired with gold; the flaw is seen as a unique piece of the object’s history, which adds to its beauty.


Sometimes what we call ‘failure’ is really just that necessary struggle called learning.


If you are a card carrying member of the human race, and you have made the decision to participate in life and not be a passive observer, you will make mistakes. You will also fail at times. And there will always be problems in your life. Failure happens, and we’ve all had our fair share of it. But from each failure, we learn two equally valuable lessons. One, that there was at least one reason we failed; and two, that we can rebound from failure. Failure is a teacher if we have the right attitude. J.K. Rowling writes: “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not lived at all. In which case, you’ve failed by default.” If you try something you risk failure. If you don’t, you ensure it.


Always look for the lesson! In one of Charles Schultz Peanuts cartoon strips, Charlie Brown is at the beach building a beautiful sand castle. As he stands back to admire his work, it is suddenly destroyed by a large wave. Looking at the smooth sand mound that had been his creation a moment before, he says. “There must be a lesson here, but I don’t know what it is.” Interestingly enough, while Peanuts has had enduring fame, Schultz had all his cartoons rejected by his high school yearbook staff.


In order to succeed, we must be prepared to fail and to fail well. What has been called ‘intelligent failure’ happens to the best of us and building the skills to learn and grow stronger from one’s mistakes is a skill that can be developed. Johnny Cash writes: “You build on failure. You use it as a stepping stone. Close the door on the past. You don’t try to forget the mistakes but you don’t dwell on it. You don’t let it have any of your energy, or any of your time or any of your space.”

An ancient proverb states, “Only a fool trips on what is behind him.”


So the real question to ask is the not the “But what if I fail?” question.

The answer to that ‘what if’ question is, you will.

A better question might be, “after I fail, what then?”


John Maxwell writes in his book, Failing Forward, “The next time you experience a failure, think about why you failed instead. Look at it objectively so you can do better next time.” Ask yourself the following questions:


•  What lessons have I learned?

•  Am I grateful for the experience?

•  Where did I succeed as well as fail?


Maxwell continues: “The difference between average people and achieving people is their perception of and response to failure.


This is the second of three blogs that I call the ‘Reframing/Re-definition Series,’ where we look at familiar words with a general negative connotation and try to see them in a newer more positive perspective. Last month we looked at the word mistake. This month we will look at the word failure. And next month, we will look at the word problem.


One thing few people know about me is in the past I have taught many people how to juggle. It was a phase; juggling is not something I’m currently active in but occasionally re-visit to have some fun. Juggling is all about positive attitude. One thing I guarantee learners from the beginning is that they’ll drop the balls whether they plan to or not. As a matter of fact, if they can’t drop the balls and laugh about it, it is unlikely they will ever succeed in becoming a juggler. It is essential that they practice failure; part of the learning process is actually dropping the balls on purpose. If they are not comfortable with the drop, their stance and balance will always be weak, in the fear that they will fail. Giving learners opportunities to try out new skills and experience the consequences of errors in a safe environment is a critical part of the learning process. The real skill in juggling is throwing the balls to the same place every time and moving your hands in the same way to position them correctly. A Chinese proverb states: “If you stumble, make it part of the dance.”


Some years ago, Art Fry, a scientist in the commercial office of 3M, came up with an idea for one of the company’s products. It seems that he dealt with a small irritation every Sunday as he sang in his church choir. After marking his pages in the hymn book with small pieces of paper, the small pieces would invariably fall out all over the floor when he would open the book.  


Suddenly. An idea struck him. He remembered an adhesive developed by a colleague that everyone thought was a failure because it did not stick very well. “I coated the adhesive on a paper sample,” Fry recalls, “and I found that it was not only a good bookmark, but it was great for writing notes. It will stay in place as long as you want it to, and then you can remove it without damage.” The resulting product was Post-it Notes and it has become one of 3M’s most successful office products ever. At 3M, many of their most successful products, such as masking tape, began life as apparent failures.


Giving up on your goal because of one setback, is like slashing your other three tires because you you got a flat.


There is an old saying that many great inventions are the products of accidents.

As Thomas Edison stated so well: “Just because something doesn’t do what you planned it to do, doesn’t mean it’s useless.” 


Some common reasons why people fail:


Fear of failure 

Fear must be cold, because it freezes people, it actually paralyzes them. If you’re afraid of failing, you will not take the necessary risks required to achieve your goals; you tend to stay in your comfort zone and avoid any risks. 


Lack of goal-setting 

Less than 10% of people set meaningful goals. Achieving goals requires effort, determination and a strong self-discipline. Your plans should be specific, measurable and time-bound.


Lack of planning 

Failing to plan is actually planning to fail. Plans help you to steer all your actions in one direction. Carefully think things through before you start pursuing a specific goal.


Having unrealistic timetables

Most people overestimate what they can do in a short period of time and as a result, they become quickly discouraged because of a lack of progress; they vastly underestimate how long things actually take. The inability to get short-term steps accomplished creates the perception that the goal is slipping away.



When it comes to procrastination, there are two types of challenges. The first problem is that they simply cannot get started. The second part arises when people are confronted with difficulties and problems and they feel they have been plateaued. 



If you don’t care and have a pessimistic attitude, you will lack the needed passion to do things well. Unfortunately, apathy can infect any area of our lives and can be highly contagious. Apathy results in a lack of focus. Failure becomes your footprint.


Lack of self-discipline

If you lack self-discipline, you are likely to give up too quickly when problems arise. A lack of self-discipline also makes you more likely to give in to short term distractions and temptations. You will not always be motivated so practicing self-discipline will keep you on track in more difficult times. 


Lack of perseverance

If you suffer from a lack of perseverance or stick-to-it-ness, you’ll eventually fail. It is necessary that you continue fighting for the accomplishment of your goals when you are confronted with difficulties and problems, even if it is uncomfortable. It’s important to remember these two words: perseverance and resistance. Persevere in what must be done and resist what ought not to be done.


Making Excuses

You seek the fault for your situation outside of yourself. If you blame other people for your own mistakes and problems, you are destined to fail. Successful individuals don’t allow excuses to stand between themselves and their goals. If you do not assume responsibility for what happens in our lives, you are not in a position to do anything about it.


Dismissal of past mistakes

Some people live and learn, and some only live. Failure is a teacher if you have the right attitude. Life is full of experiences, both negative and positive. Only a fool trips on what is behind him. Wise people learn from their mistakes; experience is the name they give to slipups.


Cherie Carter Scott writes: “Human growth is a process of experimentation, trial, and error, ultimately leading to wisdom. Each time you choose to trust yourself and take action, you can never be quite certain how the situation will turn out. Sometimes you are victorious, and sometimes you become disillusioned. The failed experiments, however, are no less valuable than the experiments that ultimately prove successful; in fact, you usually learn more from your perceived ‘failures’ than you do from your ‘perceived’ successes.”


In 1962, four young women wanted to start a professional singing career. They began performing in their church and doing small local concerts. Then came their time to cut a record. It was a flop. Another was recorded. Another flop. The third, fourth, fifth and so on through their ninth recordings were all failures.


Early in 1964, they were booked for The Dick Clark Show. He paid barely enough to meet expenses, and no great contracts appeared from their national exposure.

In the summer of 1964, they recorded, “Where Did Our Love Go?” The song raced to the top of the charts and the Supremes gained national recognition and prominence for their musical sensations. Prior to their hit singles, the Supremes were known as the “No-Hit Supremes.” Their musical future was bleak, but they continued to believe in their musical abilities and passion for their profession.


I am a nature freak. I love nature. And I especially love birds; even have a heated bird bath in the back yard in the winter. We feel very blessed each spring to have robins nesting in the front area of the house, near the front door. And each spring, we celebrate the arrival of usually three babies, observing and watching them grow until it is time for them to leave the nest. It always seems each year there is one baby a little more adventurous than the others and sits on the edge of the nest, preparing for their initial flight. I wonder if birds ever have a fear of failure; they certainly are able to take a risk, they seem to just trust the process, perhaps with a little or lot of encouragement from their parents. How hard would it be for us to make that first solo flight with no practice or a rehearsal?


Guillaume Apollinaire, a French writer and poet, pens this so beautifully:

Come to the edge,

No, we will fall.

Come to the edge. 

No, we will fall.

They came to the edge.

She pushed them and they flew.


Let’s look at some famous (perceived) failures:


Who am I? When I was 26, I was totally broke, going nowhere fast, owned two pair of pants that barely fit, shoes that had holes in them. I even sold my dog to a stranger for $40.00 because I couldn’t afford to care for my animal. (When I sold my screenplay, I tracked down my dog, and bought him back for $15,000.00). 

I am Sylvester Stallone.


Who am I? While on a delayed train from Manchester to London in 1990, I conceived the idea for The Harry Potter series. The seven-year period that followed saw the death of my mother, the birth of my first child, a divorce from my first husband, and relative poverty until the first novel in the series, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was published in 1997. I am J.K. Rowling


Who am I? I’ve missed more than 900 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 333 games. 26 times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. I am a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame. I am Michael Jordan


Who am I? I twice failed to pass the entrance exam at the military school I wanted to attend. I was able to pass on the third attempt only after working intensely with a tutor.  I am Winston Churchill


Mickey Mantle, the great New York Yankee outfielder, once said, “During my 18 years, I came to bat almost 10,000 times. I stuck out about 1,700 times and walked maybe 1,900 times. You figure a ballplayer will average about 500 at bats a season. That means I played seven years without ever hitting a ball.” This observation, coming from one of the greatest hitters of all time, should give us some perspective about the value of failures and mistakes. Mickey Mantle is a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame.


Failure is a part of creating a great life.


Everyone makes mistakes, has setbacks and failures. You do not come with a book on how to get it right all the time. You will fail sometimes, not because you planned to, but simply because you are human. Failure is a part of creating a great life. Stand up to it and handle it with grace.


I would be remiss if I did not discuss the need to accept when failure is really failure. The assumption that failure will necessarily lead to learning is not always true. Sometimes failure is really failure and we need to accept that. So when is failure really failure? The obvious answer is when we do not learn anything from a setback. Some other examples might be choosing unethical acts, acting selfishly in a way that harms others or committing to something and not following through because we don’t make a sincere effort to honor our commitments.


Let’s close this blog with some words from Denzel Washington: “I’ve found that nothing in life is worthwhile unless you take risks. Fall forward. Every failed experiment is one step closer to success. You’ve got to take risks. You will fail at some point in your life. Accept it. You will lose. You will embarrass yourself. You will suck at something. There is no doubt about it. Never be discouraged. Never look back. Give everything you’ve got. And when you fall throughout life, fall forward.”


Previous month: People come in a number of varieties but perfect isn't one of them.

Next month:  Seeing Problems as Challenges and Opportunities


What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?


What would you create or attempt to change about your life if fear wasn’t an issue?


What is a new skill you’d like to learn?


Review the quotes very carefully. Choose a quote and really focus on it. Make it a discussion practice at work, your “Quote of the week.”





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