I stumbled across an interview with Brene Brown (whose TED talk I mentioned last week), and at the end she says if she was going to found a museum, she would call it “a Museum of Epic Failure.” At which point I instantly emailed a link to the article to my friend and said, “This is the title of my next blog post!”
We have such strange ideas about failure and success. I meet people again and again who assume that, having failed at something once, it makes sense to automatically give up and not try again. They wonder at the fact that I have written THREE novels, even though none of them are yet published. They make comments that call into question the entire premise of one of my failures, as if I have now automatically learned better.
Sure, sometimes a failure, and the lessons we learn by failing, cause us to change directions. Sometimes we decide we’re better suited to doing something different, or we’ve found a new passion to pursue. Sometimes our viewpoint has changed so that we no longer want the same things we wanted before. But failure can also mean that the next time we try, we’ll apply what we’ve learned this time around and do better.
Meanwhile, when we stop doing something we’ve been successful at in some form or another, people get confused and tell us it’s “too bad.” And if they like us (aka social success), they tell us to “never change.” There’s this idea that once success has been achieved, we need to hold onto it tightly while avoiding change at all costs.
This is an example of black and white thinking at its finest, where success is positive and good and to be cherished, while failure is negative and bad and to be avoided.
What is often overlooked is the necessity of failure. When we take a risk, it is risky because there is the possibility of failure. If we were one hundred percent sure we’d succeed, it wouldn’t be a risk at all, would it? And so many great successes and helpful learning moments come from the willingness to take a risk and allow ourselves to be vulnerable.
Most great art–be it visual, literary, musical, or theatrical–comes from reaching to see where we can go, from exposing ourselves in the act of creation.
Most great relationships–be they platonic or romantic–come from opening up and being authentic with one another, while not knowing how we’ll be received.
Most great entrepreneurial ventures–be they tech start-ups or service businesses or local merchants–come from taking the leap into the unknown and committing ourselves and our resources to a particular vision.
When we are engaged in these activities and being honest with ourselves, we know we are taking risks. We know we may fail. And it is when we allow ourselves the space to fail (say goodbye to perfectionism!) that we are capable of our best work.
Which is when we realize that failure isn’t inherently bad. It teaches us, it pushes us, it leads down paths we wouldn’t have noticed by ourselves. It makes success, when it comes, more meaningful, even while it keeps us grounded and connected. And when failure comes instead, and we feel flattened by its impact, we can remind ourselves of the alternative: staying safe, cramped, and complacent while being too afraid to really try.
We are each in the process of creating our own personal Museum of Epic Failure. I’ve already collected many interesting exhibits in mine. And each one has helped to shape who I am today.
Even things that are uncomfortable can have reasons to be celebrated. Is there a failure you’ve experienced that you learned something important from or that you’re grateful for now? Feel free to share in the comments.