On the subject of failure and what we can do about it


I have been lucky enough in life to achieve most of what I set my mind and heart to but there are things that I could, if I chose to, consider as failure. For instance, as a fourteen year old I had set my sights of becoming a professional soccer player. Everything was going well until I broke my leg playing for my town team, Derby Boys. This was an accident of course but I never recovered properly and my dream was lost. Was this failure it surely felt like it at the time? After all I had lost my dream. I was immensely disappointed and it took a long time and enormous hard work to get fit and play again but never again did I perform at the same level. I have always wondered what would have happened if I had not broken my leg. I have reflected many times since then and have come to the conclusion that my success was based on strength and enthusiasm and a very good football brain but I always knew that I was short on basic skill. I suspect that what would have happened is that I might have spent an enormous amount of effort trying to get into top flight football and not so much on my studies; only to fall short and have nothing else. It was incredibly hard for me at the time as it was my body that failed me and I have lived with the effects ever since. At the time I felt I failed and I felt I failed big time. Of course in reality this was not failure it was completely out of my hands. So what then is “failure”?

Shall we try to define failure? In response to criticism that he failed to make the incandescent light bulb for so long, Thomas Edison replied, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work I only needed one that did”. Buddha said, “The only real failure in life is not to be true to the best one knows”. So what should we take from these thoughts? I take it that, if I am honest to myself and apply everything that I am, I know and I feel the result will be an honest reflection of my effort. How can anything we do from honesty be wrong? In my view it cannot because honesty is the only real foundation for human endeavour. Had I not played every game to the best of my ability and to the full extent of my commitment? I now know that was enough and I could do no more.

I believe that everything we do in life is an opportunity to learn. As small children the world is our laboratory and our senses our testing systems. Each time a child finds a new object they pick it up and put in their mouths to test it. The intention of course is to determine if the object is edible or not. If it tastes bad it’s rejected. However, the child does not consider this as failure only as the acquisition of helpful information for the future. In other words this is the basis of non-judgemental learning. So when do we learn to perceive our actions in terms of judgmental failure? My feeling is that our sense of failure is learnt from others early in life including our parents, teachers and peers. Gradually each of our tests is fitted with a label that implies that if the result we obtain is not useful then we are somehow a bad person. I stress that I do not lay blame on these “teachers” as they are products of the same process.

As children we also experiment with our relationships and behaviour patterns; we push the limits. We are told repeatedly that our actions are good or bad and we get used to this constant judgement placing each response and its trigger in compartments in our mind. In many cases this comes in the form of an admonition that the child is bad or stupid rather that the action being bad or stupid. If this persists and is reinforced by several different adult influences in the child’s life then they somehow merge into that role and their natural propensity for experimentation is lost.

At best we learn that each of our actions or tests of the world around us comes with the implicit knowledge that if the experiment works people appear to likes us and if it doesn’t then they don’t. As humans are genetically hardwired to live in social groups, acceptance is everything and we need to be loved and valued in order to live rich and satisfying lives.

Our internal response as adults to our learning experiences is very telling. What do you hear in your head when you are faced with a new challenge? Do you hear the internal saboteur whispering in your ear something like, “you tried something like this last time and it was really scary and you failed, do you remember Huh?” or “You’re a bum why do you think you can do this remember all those other failures?” If, after you tried something it did not work out as planned whose voice do you now hear is it, “You did it again didn’t you, you should never try that kind of thing you were never any good at it.” That is the voice of your authoritarian internal parent. These are part of you but they are the voices of don’t, shouldn’t, can’t, won’t and most of all fear and self-loathing. These parts of you were not there as a baby but developed with time. They are the voices of judgement that cloud our world view and prevent us from excelling. You can never shut them up completely but you can keep them busy and you can chose to ignore them but it takes self awareness, courage and practice.

Tennyson said, “It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all” (In Memoriam). This is the greatest affirmation of carrying out one of life’s experiments. To commit oneself to another unconditionally is just about the most exciting and scary thing we ever do. This does not always go well and we do not all fall in love with and settle down successfully with our first love. So, is lost love failure? For love to result in a lasting partnership many different factors need to coincide and coalesce into a whole. If all of these things do not happen and love is lost is it anyone’s fault; of course not? If not then what has happened and how should we move on?

Lost love is traumatic and it hurts. Our emotions are tumultuous and searing for long after the split. This is raw grief, grief for lost love and grief for a lost imagined life. We grieve for all those things that might have been. But the loss of love in itself does not make us or our lost partner inherently bad people; they were simply in the end not the right one. Is conceptually any different from any other life experiment? If we can view ourselves and the other person eventually in a non-judgemental way then every other one of our life experiments is a cake walk in comparison.

I am absolutely not saying that we should go through life in an emotionless vacuum. On the contrary I am saying that we should use our emotions to test the outcomes of those experiments. To make decisions on a particular course of action in life without taking fundamental consideration of our emotional state is self defeating. For example, let’s say that you are unhappy with your current job and you feel you need to move to another place. If you simply check out the situations vacant columns and apply for jobs just to get away there is a very high likelihood that you will jump from frying pan to fire in short order. On the other hand if you investigate carefully what you are feeling about the current job and why you are unhappy it gives you a litmus test to check any other opportunities. You might sense how you respond to the tasks, the people the ethos, simply the boredom in your current job. You then much better equipped to look at new opportunities and ask yourself would I simply be getting the same kinds of emotional triggers that are the cause of my present unhappiness. I learnt a long time ago that it was not the content of my job that caused me angst but rather my ignorance as to how I should deal with the emotional consequences of my work life. That realisation was the most liberating thing in my professional life. It has not made it any easier but I understand from where the stress stems and this kind of awareness is power.

I don’t know if anyone has said this before but to my mind emotions are inherently bereft of  any measure of judgement, they just are. They simply reflect our response in the moment to the events that we experience. We may feel emotion over past memories, current events or even imagined futures but they do not come in forms that are essentially judgemental. When for example, have you ever experienced “bad joy” or “good anger”. Emotions allow us to determine how we should respond to something other than from the purely intellectual. I believe that if we truly appreciate our emotions and if we can learn how to interpret them we are empowered.

Earlier I tried an attempt at defining failure. Admittedly it was in a rather constraint framework. Now we can look at a much broader definition based upon the acceptance that all human actions are associated with both intellectual and emotional sensing and that neither is inherently good or bad, they just exist. If that is the case then “failure” in its broadest sense can be viewed as our refusal to accept the honest impact of our emotions on what we do. It follows then that once we adopt this non-judgmental view of ourselves and our actions no matter what we do we can never fail. All that we do is learn from our experiences, chose a wise path and move on to the next experiment that life puts in front of us. You might like to see Seth Godin’s view on failure and how it relates to entrepreneurism in this very short interview with Bryan Elliot

Finally, if that was failure what is the secret to the success in life for which we all crave? My conclusion is that we all should try everything that life offers, ignore our internal saboteur and authoritarian adult voices, go boldly forward sensing all the time what happens to us, observe the result and make a choice. My experience in adopting this life strategy both at home and at work is that the quality of my relationships have improved, my clarity of thought is more refined and I am essentially a much happier person. I hope this helps you.

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About Gary R Coulton

I use my 30 years experience as teacher, learner, facilitator, mentor, trainer, manager, leader, biomedical researcher, intrapreneur , executive and sports coach to create “teams for change and re-invention”. I have developed the concept of “Adaptive Intelligence” to support individuals, teams and organisations in their quest to understand and take advantage of the “Change Paradox”. I have created a range of innovative courses and training systems including “How to achieve like an elite thinking/business athlete”. I live in North Surrey, UK with my Wife and Daughter and enjoy coaching Kayak paddling technique, travelling and learning a new thing each day.
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One Response to On the subject of failure and what we can do about it

  1. Dear All,
    Thank you so much for taking the time to read my offering and especially for the wonderfully encouraging comment you left. If you subscribe to this Blog you will get regular notification by e-mail of new posts that might interest you. There is no charge for subscribing to my blog and I will not be trying to sell any of my leadership or coaching products of service via this Blog.
    Best wishes from

    Gary Coulton
    The Leadership Fox

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