Embracing Failure

Life is Suffering.

It’s Your Fault.

You Can Change It.


The future is unpredictable. Our definitions of success as teenagers will likely be very different from our definitions of success in our 50’s. If we think about the infinite nature of the universe, the vast expanse of the ocean floor, or even the complexity of the human mind, it’s easy to see that our understanding of the world we live in is extremely limited at best. We really don’t know what we don’t know. If this is the reality, why is it that we are so surprised when life steers us in a direction we weren’t expecting? Why are we so hesitant to set audacious goals? Why are we so afraid of failure when it’s clear that it’s got to happen in order for us to discover more about the world and more about ourselves?

Embarrassment, loss, disenchantment, disappointment etc. I use the word failure to encompass these things. Failure is the place where circumstances fall short of our expectations. Expectations, both known and unknown, come from our stories. The value of becoming comfortable with such uncomfortable experiences is that it makes taking action against the goals we set more palatable. The less intimidated I am by failure, then the less I hesitate with trying in the first place. In my mind, this speeds up the process of learning. If we think of failures in life as the end point of experiments, I think this has the potential to change the way many of us experience the world around us. If we are running around with an overarching narrative about how life works and we also live in a world that is risk averse and avoids failure, then what happens when we discover realities that don’t fit the narrative:

  • You graduate college with honors and do 3 internships while in school. But at the time of your graduation the economy hits a downturn that hits your field particularly hard and you can’t find a job in your field. You spend the first two years out of college working for minimum wage. (Story – I’m supposed to get a high paying job when I graduate.)
  • You workout every day. You try to eat healthy. You’ve been doing this your whole life and one day you have a stroke or get diagnosed with cancer. (Story – I take good care of my body so I’m supposed to have good lifelong health.)

Our story has failed to accurately map to the realities of the world around us. I propose that we learn to think about our stories as hypothesis’s. I have a hypothesis about how my life is supposed to work. This includes the roles of other people in my life (relationships), my health, and how financial security and career will play out. I have to take personal responsibility for everything that’s in my hypothesis (taking ownership of my story). I then need to establish some parameters to test my hypothesis (Fundamentals). Finally, I need to execute against my hypothesis in an experiment. Eventually the experiment ends and I get to see how accurate my initial assumptions were. How close is my hypothesis/theory to solving the problem? We don’t live our lives in labs but given how much unknown there is, it’s certainly reasonable to think that we might benefit from a posture of philosophical experimentation with life, rather than absolute certainty of any one way of being in the world.

Why is this important? A challenge that seems to pop up more and more often from my audiences is the issue of mental health in our society. It’s important that I say that I am not a mental health professional and I have no formal training in counseling or psychology. It’s also worth pointing out that I don’t know if we have always had the mental health challenges we see in the world today or we may be keeping better track of them and we may be more willing to talk about them in present times. All that said, from what I hear from people in the demographically diverse audiences I’ve spoken to, people are struggling.

In one talk I gave, I made the assertion (this is a theory) that when we experience mental/emotional pain it comes from unmet expectations. Those expectations come form our stories. That event was for the South Sound Small Business Summit. When starting a business it so important to embrace failure. If you avoid it you will never grow into anything. Ironically, if you don’t embrace failure in the short term you will most likely fail in the long term. Failing in the long term could look like a lot of things:

  • Building a profitable business that consumes your whole life and leads to the ruin of relationships.
  • Becoming rigid about a business model that lets you barely get by but, had you been willing to pivot slightly, you could be thriving.
  • Telling yourself false stories about business partners that you need to let go off. Allowing other people to tell you false stories about business partners you need to adopt. Both causing massive limitations.
  • Having your identity so wrapped up in building a successful business and proving people wrong that you can’t recognize that you would actually rather work for a large organization in a safe predictable role.
  • And on and on

Small frequent experiments (controlled failure) can probably prevent some of these things and a willingness to hold our ideas openly can allow for transition into new ideas with greater speed. Essentially, this all boils down to how we recover from disappointment and how long it takes us to learn from previous experiments (failures) and reset our aims (generate a new hypothesis) and move forward. In entrepreneurship, the person that has the courage to try and the humility to fail moves through the iterations of unsuccessful attempts faster than the person that avoids failure and refuses to acknowledge mistakes. You can’t make the marketplace do what you want it to do. You have to solve a problem that enough people care about and you have to solve it in a way that the are willing to engage with. Figuring this out takes time and iteration. And remember, I think life is about solving two problems.

Contrast this with our broader attitudes and ideas around success:

  • We have a culture of allowing 18 y.o. to make big financial bets against professional pathways that they haven’t even tried yet (college). If life is a process of self discovery, why are we telling people that are so young that they need to have life figured out so soon? Career exploration should be of high priority when you’re a child. Of course, as adults the process just continues.
  • So many people get frustrated in all types of relationships when people change. However, if personal growth is something to be espoused, shouldn’t change be expected? Should it be so shocking that sometimes we’ll drift apart as people’s paradigms begin to differentiate? Maybe drifting apart is a good thing? To keep the connection we’d have to learn each other all over again… Stimulating the mind and strengthening our ability to understand, empathize, and communicate.
  • Why do we try to hold on to past versions of ourselves when the current context we live in has clearly changed? “In college I was this…” “When I was single I was this….” “When I had this job I was this…” You’re not there anymore and it’s okay. We should deal with where we are and who we are now, with the broader principles learned from the past. Not insisting on the specifics of a former life.

The world around us evolves and requires us to shift in order to exist in it. In this same way, consumer habits evolve and require businesses to shift the way they do things in order to continue to thrive. I could go on and on about this but the simple message is to learn (with time) to more quickly and wisely process the pain associated with disappointment and unmet expectations (overarching word – failure). It’s my belief that we should embrace a posture of discovery and understand that with time, most of our ideals about what’s true may break down. This makes sense given the vast nature of our minds and the universe. Create your vision for the future. Set your intermediate goals. Work against those goals. Learn from the failures that come with the process. Update your story and try again.

At what time in your life did you feel like a huge failure? Have you processed that time in an objective manner? What are the critical/factual lessons you learned from that experience? What are your current goals based on that knowledge?

I’ll summarize these ideas in the next post.


Solve Problems. Build Resilience.

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