Embracing Failure

Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly at first. It’s worth doing poorly many times until you get good at it.
-Paul Tracy (or maybe it was Zig Ziglar; I can’t remember which one said it.)

Go on failing. Go on. Only next time, try to fail better.
-Samuel Beckett

As someone who grew up receiving a fair amount of criticism when I failed (one of the byproducts of being compared to two exceptionally gifted brothers). I often try to protect myself from failure. Maybe it would be more precise to say that, when I fail, I make sure I have my excuses ready. I’ve learned that no one can completely avoid failure. Life will sometimes require us to do things we aren’t that skilled at doing, and we won’t be able to do it well enough. That may not technically be a failure, but as I grew up, it felt like it was.

It took a long time for me to realize that avoiding my failures didn’t do any good for anyone. Others learned that I wouldn’t take responsibility when I made mistakes. I couldn’t learn from my mistakes because, I argued, it was always someone or something else’s fault. It was a miserable way to live.

Eventually, I started to mature emotionally and face my failures. I think two types of people helped me make the shift. The first group treated my failures as opportunities for me to improve, and they took the time to explain what I had done wrong and how to do things better next time. They didn’t shame or judge me. They just knew I could do better and wanted to help me get there.

The other group actively encouraged me to make mistakes. In their minds, if I wasn’t making mistakes, I wasn’t trying hard enough. Making mistakes was the only way they could discover what they could do, and where their limits were. If they did something perfectly, they would be annoyed because they felt like they probably could have done it better, but because they played it safe they hadn’t achieved their full potential.

It was liberating to have people not only accept, but even to embrace, my mistakes. It was new for me, and it removed the stigma of falling short of others’ standards.

I will forever be grateful to an old hippie named Don, who was so enthusiastic about mistakes that I was overwhelmed by the lecture he gave me. He taught me to drive a forklift, and he was the best forklift driver at the ministry where we worked. One day I made a basic mistake on the forklift, and it cost the organization hours of labor when we couldn’t afford it. I was so demoralized that I didn’t even try to fix the problem, since others were already trying to sort out my mess. When I bumped into Don and told
him what had happened, he broke out with “Dude! That’s what you’re supposed to do! That’s how you learn! How do you think I learned to do what I do? I’ve driven a forklift off a dock, I’ve rolled them suckers, I blew out both my knees smashing into a wall. I done more damage than you can imagine. But I never made the same mistake twice. Once I knew what the machine could do and what it couldn’t, that’s when I knew what I could do with that machine. You’re just learning. If you can’t tell me each week about something you did wrong, I’ll know you’re a slacker!”

It was a whole new way for me to look at failure and mistakes. I still get frustrated by my mistakes, but I’m much better at learning from them thanks to Don.

by Marti Maltby, Director Peace House Community – A Place to Belong

This article originally appeared in “The Alley,” the newspaper for the Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis.