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Why Failure Can Be a Good Thing

Posted by ICS Canada

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“I’m only human,” I’ve said a million and five times at least. I use this phrase anytime someone says I did something less than perfectly. I’m only human, I’ll say, as if those three words glued together mean that I can’t be blamed for failing; my humanity means there’s absolutely no way I could have been expected to do anything but fail. For someone that considers themselves to be a perfectionist, I’m decidedly imperfect. Having an excuse for failure is a balm whenever I feel the sting of embarrassment that so often accompanies mistakes. Or it used to be. Over time, I’ve gained experience and perspective—I look at things I’ve failed at and, with distance, can see what I learned. You can actually learn a lot and gain a lot from failure. Here’s what failure has taught me in some thirty odd years.

Being someone who is a self-proclaimed perfectionist, I struggle with being patient with myself. I should be able to do something well the first time and there is obviously something wrong in my process if I can’t. When I was a child, if I didn’t do something correctly I’d usually abandon it, whether it was a puzzle I couldn’t finish, a math problem I didn’t understand, or that one year I took tap dancing lessons and quit because I wasn’t the best one in the class. As I grew up and went through school, I wasn’t allowed to toss aside things that I didn’t immediately excel at. I was forced (unfairly, I whined at the time) to keep trying until I finished. When you fail at something, if it’s once or ten times, you eventually settle into a sort of satisfying frustration as you keep at it. I say satisfying because every attempt, though each in its own right a failure, is a step in the right direction and you know that you’re getting closer to the desired result. Each failed attempt is valuable because, paraphrasing something Thomas Edison is often quoted as saying, I’ve found 10,000 ways that don’t work. I’m one step closer to finding that one thing that does work. Failing at a lot of things I thought I was passionate about helped me realize that I needed to keep trying until I found that one way that is successful.

You shouldn’t base self-worth on failing or succeeding; a sense of self isn’t necessarily something you’ll gain from failure. Failure will teach you, however, the value of success. I’m not a jack-of-all-trades, never been someone who could name more than one or two things I have a talent for. I sometimes wonder if the reason I decided to be a writer when I was twelve years old was really just because it’s something that came naturally to me. I didn’t have to try very hard to make a nice sentence, a good story. In a preteen crowd, I was a veritable Hemingway. Since it came so easily and naturally to me, I obviously didn’t try to work at it and improve. I didn’t have to. Not until college when, like a slap in the face, my professor for Intermediate Fiction told me I was nearly failing. She could tell, she said, that I was naturally inclined toward writing a good sentence; she could also tell I was lazy about it. and that “natural inclination” wasn’t going to be good enough. I despised her! Mostly because she was right. I settled on writing because I was good without trying, but I did learn to love it. After speaking with her, I didn’t suddenly have an epiphany and change my ways, but I did start paying more attention to what I was doing. And, my gosh, I tried because with the threat of failure looming, I realized for the first time that I really did want to write, that I needed to write. When something has come easily for you, though, you don’t really ever appreciate the value of doing it well. You didn’t put any of yourself in it, so it doesn’t matter. But when you fail at something and keep trying anyway, that feeling when you do succeed is so much better.

Being human means failing often. But if you look at failure as an opportunity to learn something, it doesn’t bite so hard. I am grateful for every failure because without them, I would probably be a terrible person. You can’t really learn anything without failing at least once. If you’re constantly avoiding things that you may fail at, like I did (and still sometimes do), you’re going to be stressed and disappointed. Failing is okay—it’s inevitable. Whether it’s an exam or a project at work, you can’t do everything perfectly. When you make a mistake, take time to figure out why you did. Then, you can adjust, improve, move on.

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