Failure

Photo of lemonsThe Incredible Value of Failure

“When life gives you lemons, make lemonade,” the saying goes.  When life gives you lemons, pay attention.

Have you failed recently? Congratulations!  Let me explain.

When I was a kid, I hurt myself and said to my mother, “I wish I couldn’t feel pain.”  

My mother then told me a story of a person who couldn’t feel pain.  This person bled to death at the beach.  He hadn’t felt a cut in his foot and bled to death without noticing.  Without pain, she told me, we wouldn’t know when we were hurt.  I disagreed at the time.  She was telling me something important. 

Failure, like pain, sends us precious signals of problems that need to be corrected.  Without failure nothing of true difficulty and importance is ever achieved.

If you are hitting all bulls-eyes, you are too close to the target.

I hate to fail.  You do, too.

Failure is pain.  But when you fail, you learn.  When you learn, you get better.  When you get better, you succeed.

If you are not failing, you are staying within your comfort zone. You are not getting better.

Failure, of course, should not be pursued intentionally.  Similarly, one should not stab an ice pick into one’s thigh.  That would be dumb.  

But when failure occurs, we are being sent valuable intelligence and guidance.  

Failure is painful, sometimes very painful.

Example:  The Apollo 1 spacecraft, which never flew, used pure oxygen inside the crew cabin.  While being tested by a crew of three astronauts, an electrical short started a fire that burned abnormally rapidly in the pure oxygen atmosphere.  Astronauts Grissom, White and Chaffee were killed.

Value:  Had the Apollo program proceeded with the 100% oxygen cabin atmosphere, almost certainly the same accident would have occurred in space.  There were 11 successful Apollo missions — Apollo 7 through Apollo 17 — success being defined as returning the crew safely to Earth.  Six of those flights landed men on the Moon.  Those 33 astronauts, and the Apollo program, owed a great debt to Grissom, White, and Chaffee.  

This intense example of failure was integral to one of mankind’s greatest successes of the 20th century: sending humans to another world.  The accomplishment has not been repeated.

Smaller failures and successes are still available to otherwise ordinary people.  You, too, can fail.

If you want to succeed, double your failure rate” has been attributed to the co-discoverer of DNA, Thomas J. Watson.  “But don’t overdo it,” is a corollary attributed to AstroGremlin.  Really.  Don’t overdo it.

If you fail repeatedly, in close succession, you are being sent a series of valuable messages you are likely ignoring.  If this occurs in traffic, if other drivers are honking at you or you are experiencing “near misses,” you are cruising for a bruising.  Or worse.

Failure, like pain, must be accompanied by appropriate correction.

Personal Example:  I had a professor who corrected every mistake in every essay I turned in.  Terse comments in the margins questioned the logic of my arguments and marked-up text pointed out mistakes in the sentences I had struggled so hard to write. My face would burn with embarrassment as I read the all-too-justified corrections.

Value:  That tough professor set me on a path to thinking and writing more carefully.  I remembered every edit.  Having my writing edited stung.  But the alternative was worse: living in a self-congratulatory slumber in Plato’s cave of ignorance.  I would later encounter even tougher editors.  Every time, I didn’t like it.  But I learned.  

Now I edit other people’s writing.  Before I get to the actual editing, I always write something nice like, “You have some good ideas in here.”  And then I bring down the corrections like flaming chunks of doo doo.  This is how editors show their love to writers and their love for good writing.  If you find a tough editor, treasure that person. 

What feels like failure, is not.  The real failure is to ignore the message.

Can you recall a recent failure?  

Was it just a tough break (there is a difference)?  Has it resulted in correction, or did you ignore it?  Can you cite an example of a remarkable personal success that grew out of a catastrophic failure?

Let me know you are alive and kicking.  Leave a comment!