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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