A smooth sea never gave a skilled sailor, said Franklin D. Roosevelt, suggesting that without hardship, challenges and even failures, we cannot become our best selves.
It all sounds so poetic in theory. It’s the practical part that is problematic. Only those who have not felt the bitter taste of failure can be indifferent to this hard lesson of human existence: apart from good intentions, the road to “success” is often also paved with obstacles and disappointments.
The heavy weight of failure in a culture of success
In life, there are few definite things. Luckily, failure is not one of them. But people’s reaction to the idea of lack of success is radical and conveys, helplessness, shame and disgust.
From the early years of life, children are used to fearfully watch the mistakes inherent to the process of learning, to avoid failure, to run away from it. What adults indicate, through their words and their behavior is that any missed objective is a step back.
Although there are exceptions, the approach is as widespread, as it is harmful: under the pressure of obtaining exceptional results, many pupils give in when they face difficulties; they become discouraged, they lose their motivation or they become too strict – with themselves and with others, aggressive, competitive, not knowing how to deal with their vulnerabilities.
A study from 2016, conducted by the University of Columbia, shows that those children who become familiarized with the “failure stories” of such personalities as Einstein or Marie Curie, tend to improve their school performance and to develop an interest in the areas of their favorite anti-heroes.
Unveiling failure of its negative character clothes has beneficial effects, whether we are talking about children who are carving out a life path, or adults who find themselves in an impasse, because of their personal or professional failures.
When denial is not just a phase
The first step to solving a problem is admitting it. However uncomfortable it may be to place ourselves face to face with failure, this type of thinking can save us.
Yes, we failed an exam, we did wrong by our best friend, we stuttered in an important interview, we made a mistake in public, we did not rise up to our and others’ expectations.
If we owned failure as a natural part of evolution, we would overcome the moment more easily; if we enjoyed the compassion of those who went through similar experiences, we would feel liberated. But everybody is suspiciously quiet about failure.
Not professor Johannes Haushofer, from Princeton University who published in 2016 a CV of his own professional failures, a CV that left nothing out, not shameful result, no blow given to his professional ego. From lost research bids to rejected scientific papers, to the impossibility of accessing certain educational programs, Haushofer has virtually “confessed” all of his so-called mistake which tarnished his reputation. Why? According to the professor, the fact that success becomes “the person of the day” promotes an unrealistic message of perfection, which impedes us from being kind to ourselves.
Our complicated relationship with failure
At the other end of denying a failure is putting it up on a pedestal, internalizing it and identifying with it. Identifying with a failure ruins our , it makes us forget who we are.
Studies show that when our attention is focused on failure we are anxious, inefficient, unable to make any progress.
It often happens that after a disappointment we go through a number of extreme feelings which block our vision, like a wall behind which we don’t know what lies.
When we think too much about missed opportunities and failed plans, we start to underestimate our powers, and our brains conclude that we are not good enough to go back and start over. Ironically, the premonition becomes true. By anticipating a new failure, we gracefully self-sabotage, only to then make the same mistakes again.
The good side of something not so good
Despite of the popular belief that indicates the opposite, what doesn’t kill us makes us weaker. The good news is that’s not always the case. Because no matter how dark and unwanted they may be, no matter how many tears and frustrations it may bring, failures have a special potential, which must be exploited.
“I have not failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work” are the words through which American inventor Thomas Edison justified his experiments. What an ability to go beyond the surface!
In the same way they can bring us down, the big or small failures of our life teach us to conceive new defense mechanisms (let us remember that skillful sailors are not born that way, they become so because of the unsettling waves).
The same failures make us leave our comfort zone and face the unknown, gaining independence, fortitude, courage.
They help us look at things from a different perspective, to hit refresh or restart if it’s the case.
They test our ability to take decisions and refine the way in which we assess the advantages/disadvantages of possible choices.
They support us in the attempt to know ourselves better.
They give us an authentic taste of reality (interior and exterior).
They make us take life seriously, without allowing us to become overwhelmed by its whims.
It unravels our true friends and the purpose of things.
They teach us the lesson of faith in the future.
They teach us to accept our limits.
They teach us to love ourselves, even when it seems we are doing it for nothing.
What do we do with the failures that haunt us? One of the options would be to build. After all, Rome wasn’t built in a day.
Genia Ruscu holds a Master’s degree in counselling within social services.
This piece pertains to the ST.network #KeepThinking campaign. It will give voice to dozens of authors who aim to offer readers the opportunity to explore, deeper than expected, common or surprising topics that touch our lives whether or not we have enough time to perceive their influence.