The Joy of Failure


Image courtesy of bplanet / 

When you hear the word failure, what comes to mind? Do you first think of loss, or a person labeled as undesirable in some way by society? Do you think of experience and welcomed challenge?

Failure can be split into two camps: catastrophic and experiential. Catastrophic failure occurs when moral agency isn’t exercised well, meaning a bad choice is made. These types of failure result in harm. Experiential failures do not harm, except maybe for a person’s pride. These types of failures are the result of honest work and good choices. Experiential failure is what I think Thomas Edison was talking about when he said:

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Edison did not fail with a plan once and then give up on it, if he did we probably wouldn’t recognize his name today. While there are instances where failure is bad, these are drastic events and the exception to the rule. Or it’s just semantics. Failure is a natural part of experimentation and life. It is experience that turns education and knowledge into wisdom. It is experience that improves efficiency. Failure is a big part of experience.

We do not need to win in order to succeed. This is taught to Little League ball players all the time, at least in word. How many coaches and parents start fights at Little League games? Those people are failing catastrophically, unless they can make amends and learn from the mistake. I think the adage “its not about winning or losing, its how you play the game that counts” is correct. Winning is great, and there is nothing wrong with playing to win, but if the focus is on only the end result and the motivation is selfish pride, then the experience is mostly wasted. The same is true if the motivation is fear of losing. There is nothing wrong with losing, it is fundamental to life.

I worry that as a society we have developed an unnatural and increasingly irrational fear of  failure. I feel there is a trend towards preventing failure at any cost, especially the cost of liberty. Next to life itself our greatest natural gift is that of moral agency, which is to be free to choose for ourselves what to think and how to act. I am free to worry about the perception of failure, just as you are free to disagree with anything I say. The freedom to be individual agents is too important to lose.

It is okay to seek success, I don’t think we have to seek failure in order to appreciate it, but I don’t think we should make experiential failure out to be a bad thing. Society needs to accept that failures will occur, even unfortunate mistakes, and be forgiving and willing to seek the meaning in experience and learn from lessons. We all fail and make mistakes, people have been doing so for all of history. We can learn from the past and we can learn from each other and not commit the same mistakes and fail in the same ways. We can and should continue to work towards the successes while chalking failure up to experience.

Have you ever had an experience of failure that turned out to be beneficial in your life? How did your attitude factor into it?

About paulbrodie

I am a writer and a musician. My education is in psychology with emphasis in industrial/organizational psychology. My work experience has been primarily with electronic document management. Academically and intellectually I am interested in criminology and sociology. I am married to my favorite person in the world and we have one daughter.
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10 Responses to The Joy of Failure

  1. Himani Gupta says:

    I have come to believe that writers have to love failure. That’s what motivates them to write.
    The simple joy of winning after losing is my favourite, and to tell friends with a smile that I lost is so brave and beautiful.

  2. pfstare says:

    If you never accept it is ok to fail, you miss out on an awful lot through not even trying. Always a problem for a perfectionist.

    • paulbrodie says:

      I think that’s how I know I’m not a true perfectionist. I’m perfectly okay with failure and I’m willing to start a lot of things because I know I can always fail and not worry about it anymore. That’s probably categorized in its own way.

      I like what you are saying. The fear of failure can prevent us from even trying, and there is a lot to be gained in the experience of trying. It’s a good message. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Ned's Blog says:

    I don’t think the reply box will let me list that many failures. Ironically — and fortunately — it seems to take fewer successes to make up for multiple failures.

    • paulbrodie says:

      You are right, I’ve got the reply box coded for only five failures/negative observations. It helps to keep down on the clutter. Whatever that means.

      Along the lines of what you are saying, it really is true that a few successes can make up for a lot of failures. That’s what Edison was saying in away, we don’t know anything about the thousands of failed attempts at the light bulb, I guess we could know if we read his journal or something, but as it is, I don’t know. What we all know is his major success, in a way that covers for all of the failed attempts. I need a success here to cover for this failed point I’m trying to make.

      Thanks for the optimistic look at failure and success!

  4. timethief says:

    Humans learn equally well from both failure and success.Successful people understand failure to be a valuable lesson that they learn and benefit from. I view every failure as a stepping stone to success. Each one contains all the information required to succeed the next time I make the effort to move forward again.

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