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When Everything Goes Wrong (It’s OK to Fail Sometimes)

There’s a really popular school of thought these days, which says that failure is the key to success. This ideology has been popularized by tech culture, which has experienced the power of computerized iteration, applying this principle to both business and personal life. Their logic says, “you can’t succeed without daring to experiment, and experiments often fail. If you’re not willing to fall flat on your face – repeatedly – you’re not likely to find success.”

There’s a lot of truth to this idea. Persistence in the face of repeated failure can often be a path to success. We’ve all experienced this. Who was ever good at playing a musical instrument the first time they picked it up? No one is born able to walk, write, or drive a car. All of these skills we’ve had to learn through (sometimes painful) trial and error.

Yet, this ideology has a massive shadow side. To begin with, it makes it easy to blame those who haven’t made it big. The social gospel of Silicon Valley suggests that a person’s lack of success is a sign that they haven’t had the courage to take risks and fail. The tech meritocracy is built on top of the relentless drive to succeed fastest. Those of us who are slower may be looked upon as less valuable and worthy of a place on the team.

Another problem with the “fail until you succeed” mantra is that it doesn’t take into account the reality that sometimes failure is not an invitation to get up and try again. Sometimes, persistence in the face of failure is really the definition of insanity – doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result.

I’m a tenacious person. I am capable of persisting in the face of overwhelming adversity. And I do. So it’s no surprise that on many occasions throughout my life, I have spent weeks, months, even years failing pointlessly. Sometimes the answer isn’t just to try a little harder. Sometimes, surrendering to an entirely new direction is the best path.

It’s hard to decide when a situation calls for endurance, and when it simply calls for surrender. It takes discernment to know the difference, and I’ve failed at that, too. But I’m learning that it pays to be gentle with myself. I’m learning to accept that failure – real failure, that doesn’t ever lead to success – is OK sometimes. 

What’s your experience? Do you tend to give up too early, or too late? What does it look like to be faithful to where God is leading you, even if it means facing failure?

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Discovering the Hidden Power of Slow Time

  • Jerry Peace

    Live and love with faith and with neither fear nor expectations. “Failure” and “success” are short-sighted human concepts.

  • broschultz

    I believe in perseverance but I believe in discernment. Sometimes a door is closed for a reason and other times it’s a question of timing. Discerning the difference is where listening to what the Spirit is saying and honestly examining our motives comes into play. Things can’t be all about us. There should be a greater good involved and we aren’t the only ones that God can use. A lot of times we have to mature, like Moses, before we can walk in the role God has for us.

  • Leslie Manning

    I am reminded that the original meaning of “sin” is “shortcoming”. Do I sin when I fail to listen, pray and obey? Do I fall short of the mark that our loving G-d holds for me and each of us? Yes, by my human nature. But, is it not an even more grievous sin to walk away, fail to listen, replace prayer with self will and obedience with ego? May my face be ever turned to your Light, my heart ever open to your Love, my steps walk in your path, O Holy One.

  • Shoba Saji

    This is a topic close to my heart, especially if you are a parent who is juggling definitions of failures and success to your teen children as they grow up in this ever so competitive world. It is a welcome change that society is now acknowledging failures as stepping stone to success, rather than dismissing the individuals or the concepts altogether. Yes, it because of the many stories of tireless, passionate go getter, tech and non-tech entrepreneurs who made it big that we have stories to motivate our children at their times of self-doubt. While it is true that many such in the same tribe have not been successful, they are in my mind in the elite group of “bold and tried” !

    Knowing and accepting when something is not working is an important learning for anyone in this journey. This part of the journey is easier when your heart is grounded in faith and when you can look deep with you for the guidance, to keep going or steer into a new direction.

  • Joshua Ammons

    My experience has lead me to have faith in the idea that hitting a bottom can lead to an opportunity to embrace new ideas and grow. That is not always the case for people that go through difficult times, but much research is being done on the idea of post traumatic growth.

    Megan Mcardle, in The Upside of Down, writes about her research in bankruptcy laws. She says that our liberal laws that forgive debt are some of the most permissive in human history, but the law is outlined in our constitution. Her research points to this safety net allowing for innovation and risk taking that doesn’t have exorbitant penalties that one can never recover from. Countries like Italy have bankruptcy laws that provide an incentive for entrepreneurs to commit suicide, so that the family can pay off the debts if the family business goes under.

    Our criminal justice system treats drug offenders much like the entrepreneurs in Italy. Generally individuals on probation are treated with neglect or severe abuse. For example, you get no punishment for the first, second, and third times that you fail a drug screening, but on the fourth time or some arbitrary number that the probation officer has decided, you get the maximum jail sentence penalty. If we are to accept a legal role for curbing individual’s drug abuse, a system that has greater certainty of punishment, but less severe punishment would help individuals to recover. I think that allowing drug users to feel some pain from their decisions can be beneficial, but the pain should not be relentless. They should be able to move past it.

    Nassim Taleb talks about how tech companies and other highly scale-able products like literature suffer from a survivor bias. We only hear stories of the people who took great risks and succeeded. The stories are often packaged in a business case that has clear keys to success, and don’t factor in the random variables that lead to the tremendous achievement. He claims that it is not always a meritocracy that makes an idea rise to the top, because often discoveries happen at relatively the same time by people with vastly different outcomes. J. K. Rowling was certainly not the first to write children’s stories about wizards in school, and many literature professors scoff at her mastery of the English language. However, she rose to a remarkable success that few writers will ever achieve.

    I think that it is also important to suspend judgement of failure, if only for a moment. It is best to capitalize on failure as an opportunity for God to demonstrate his omnipotence. Putting the next foot forward, sitting in quiet contemplation, discussing failure with others, and making amends as necessary seems to be the path that has worked best for me.

    On the point of suspending judgement, there is an interesting story of a wise old man that I will point you to. While it is attributed to Max Lucado, the story is actually much older than Lucado’s book.

    • Thanks, Josh. This is quite a meaty comment – almost a blog post in its own right!

      I really resonate with what you relate from Nassim Taleb in terms of the survivor bias. I see this in so many fields – including Christian ministry!

      I think your words about suspending judgement of failure are wise ones. This is something I’m trying to practice in my own life.