Freelancing

7 reasons why I think failure is important

I fail quite a lot. And that’s ok. And here’s why.

1. Failure depends on your perspective.

If someone’s idea (let’s be a bit stereotypical for the sake of an example here) is that I am 30 and by now I should have a career in a particular field, be married, have a house somewhere and have a kid or at least one on the way, then by that reckoning, I have failed somehow as a person. I have failed at the game of life.

But that’s one perspective on what it means to succeed. And it’s not one I buy into obviously.

What if the idea was that I was doing what I loved, supporting myself somehow, and had friends and family around me and was rapidly crossing off things on a long list of things I wanted to achieve?

In that case, then I am successful or at least stumbling quite close to it. I am writing and doing what I love doing even if it drives me mad, I find ways to support myself, I make new friends, keep old ones even if they are halfway across the world from me, I am close to my family even if I am not physically nearby and that long list? It’s only long because I keep adding more things as I cross things off.

In fact, the main source of my frustration comes from merely trying to figure out how to work towards crossing off particular things on that list. And it’s just that frustration until I get it and then get those things done. The existence of the list and the fact that I am trying is more important than whether the list ever gets fully crossed off because as I have just admitted to you, the end of that list means I would get bored and have to start a new one anyway.

It’s hard to see how that equates to failing at life, frankly. If at all I am getting more out of it than I would have if I went with the first scenario simply because of the sorts of things I have on the list.

And let’s look at it from another perspective: my mother’s. Her main concern and wish is that her kids are happy and safe. She doesn’t care how we achieve that so long as we are and she does wish it was in a way which was more familiar so she could feel more confident about offering us advice but it doesn’t matter so long as we are happy and safe. Am I happy and safe? Yes. Result: Success.

The reason I mention this is because we all get tripped up in everyone else’s expectations for us or of us. We also find it hard to discern between really good advice and really badly matched expectations.

Failure is important because it teaches you to pay attention to the difference between doing what someone else expects you to do and what you want, need and should be doing anyway. Sometimes that difference is extremely minute – perhaps it’s not what you are doing but HOW you are doing it for example. Sometimes that difference is huge. Either way you fail until you get it right.

So are you really failing or is that someone else’s expectation that you have adopted? 

2. Failure is a barometer for how badly you want something.

Anything worth doing takes effort and time. If you keep coming up against obstacle after obstacle and you are still trying no matter how much you have failed, then you must really want whatever it is that you are trying to achieve. And sometimes it isn’t the end goal that you want to achieve that matters so much but what you learn about yourself, the process and resilience as you keep trying to surmount obstacles in your way.

Failure here teaches you the difference between what you sort of kind of fancy maybe if you are in the mood on that day and what you want so badly that even though most of the time it’s probably totally subtle and under the radar to you it has practically turned into a need.

More importantly, the more you pick up on what you really want to do through failing, the easier it becomes to make certain decisions without having to ever get to the point of failure. I didn’t have to try and fail at a dancing career to know that that career as the offer stood at the time was not what I wanted. I knew it straight away – “Not this and not in this way.” And years later, yes I still dance and of course I could turn it into work but not in the way it was offered to me then and I don’t regret it. It wasn’t on my terms and I walked away knowing I didn’t have to waste anyone else’s time either trying to figure it out.

If you are failing at something, is it something you really want? 

3. Failure teaches you how to succeed.

If you don’t make mistakes you don’t learn. It’s hard for me to remind myself of this because I always cringe when I make a mistake – any sort of mistake – and I expect rather a lot of myself. But I am not superhuman and I will make mistakes – quite often unintentionally. And then I have to fix them or start from scratch.

But whatever the context the one important part of making a mistake is the message you get: “Don’t do X again.” X being whatever tiny bit of what you did that created the mistake.

Failure teaches you not to do X. Or Y. Or Z. Because in the end you need to go with L anyway in order to make it work. Failure here tells you what options to discard and what’s not working just as it would in the scientific process which is when you change a variable and run the experiment again.

All skills are learnt and no one does anything perfectly on the first try without having had a ton of practice or knowledge beforehand.

Perfection on the first try at something, anything, even if it is only slightly different from something you are almost perfect at doing, is a mad, damaging idea to have in your head.

Case in point: I had a situation once where I was helping someone who was undertaking journalism work experience. It was their first time writing a feature story and my role was to check their work as an editor at the end and to show them the ropes.

When I started going through it, there was an apology offered each time I corrected something. Eventually I had to say “Look, it’s my job to catch your typos and I know they are typos because you don’t make the same mistake twice in the entire thing. If they were glaring errors of spelling and grammar and fact checking, we would be having a very different conversation right now. You are doing great at this and you are getting better.”

What are you learning each time you fail? 

4. Failure teaches you empathy and forgiveness (and a ton of patience).

When you have failed at something, when you have tried your hardest and failed at something, then you instinctively understand when someone else is in the same situation. You know how they feel. You know the sort of guilt trip they start sending themselves on.

And if you are a veteran at this then you know the guilt trip is the dangerous part of it all. By this point you know the best thing to do is to quickly pinpoint what when wrong and why, then if need be, grieve a bit depending on the context and what occurred and then as soon as possible move on to doing something about it, either fixing it or getting up and trying again or both.

And you know what you need to say to someone and you know how to be there as they work through it and you also know how to forgive them and how to get them to forgive themselves because after having failed yourself, you know that it is a learning process that they are going through. Because you have done that too. It makes you a better friend, a better colleague and a better partner.

Has your experience with failing at things helped you become a better friend? 

5. Failure teaches you responsibility.

If you look at failure this way, as something helpful rather than something to fear, you will eventually feel more comfortable with the mistakes you make and this will lead you to happily admit responsibility for them.

Depending on the nature of the mistakes, this does take time but it does happen. I can now tell you that I annoyed people on and off because I was taking on more than I could handle and then letting people down but over time I have learnt and am still learning how to become better at that and how to match my resources, time and energy to what I can and want and need to do and how to say no. Because ultimately saying “No” upfront is less cruel than promising and being unable to deliver despite all your best intentions.

I can admit now that I was absolutely hopeless at that a few years ago and that even now I still have a long way to go. Does this mean I am unreliable or irresponsible? No. Of course not. If I have the time, energy and resources to do something I will be absolutely wonderful at it. If I don’t then I won’t. But I was horrible at estimating whether I did have all that or not and I am still learning how to do this as I get better at it.

Can you own up to your mistakes because you know you have learnt from them? 

6. Failure is not the same as rejection.

Or rather rejection is real but isn’t failure.

REJECTION ≠ FAILURE.

I may pitch my work to quite a few publications. Let’s say I don’t hear back from them at all.

Have I failed as a writer? No. I can still write. And I can still write well.

So what could have happened then? My pitches were rejected.

They could have been rejected because they had no where to put them and the words were so good that they couldn’t cut them to fit. They could have rejected them because someone got there before me and wrote a piece on the same subject or because they have all the articles they need for the next few issues sorted out already. They could have rejected them because  it might be close but it’s still not quite the right fit for the publication’s subject and audience. Perhaps it got rejected because they don’t have the money to pay any freelancers for the next however long so cannot accept any more pieces for awhile. Perhaps the editor is sick or busy or in dire straits and has subsequently missed various similar emails and mine in their inbox.

Usually, editors let you know why a piece is rejected though you may have to email them a few times.

Rejection doesn’t mean or equate to failure but a lot of us believe that it does. It causes us to get depressed and lose our self esteem.

Maybe you applied for several different vacancies and still didn’t get a job. You want a job where you fit in best and do your best work and are happy as well getting paid. It does not mean that you are a failure at what you do as an occupation or as a human being if you didn’t get it as soon as you hoped you would. Keep trying till you find your best fit both for what you want and need in a job and also what would make you happy in one.

Where else in your life are you assuming that a rejection is all about how you have failed as a person at something? And are you sure that you are right in that assumption? 

7. Failure can help you be free.

I know a lot of people who regularly plan to ward off failure. They fear the worst happening so they try everything they can to prevent it.

Good idea but not when taken to an extreme. When trying something, why not HOPE to SUCCEED, EXPECT to FAIL a few times on the way and PLAN so that when you do fail, it’s easy enough to get up and TRY AGAIN?

To me, that seems more logical and practical.

What all this means is that you stop worrying about what failing means. You stop worrying that it makes you less of a person when it actually gives you more experience and therefore improves you as a person. You stop worrying that it means you won’t get anywhere. You stop worrying that it means that you are not normal and everyone else is.

If you can do that, then you stop being afraid of failing because you have planned for it so that you can get up and try again if you do fail armed with more knowledge than you had when you started.

And if you don’t fear failing, then you end up constantly trying and trying again and suddenly everyone else is in awe of how you are quietly and quickly succeeding at a number of things. You are succeeding quicker because: for one, you have cut out the dithering time before you actually start anything where you have to psyche yourself up to get over the fear of failing; two, you have cut out the time on the guilt trip and re-psyching when you do fail and have to try again; and, three you are less likely to give up and more likely to try again in different ways at a much faster rate than you would have before.

Suddenly you have more time, you feel better and more confident and accomplished and you have learnt a lot about yourself and the way you work. And conquering a fear of failure in one area makes the victory bleed over into other areas of your life as well.

Failure is something to keep you on track, not something to be afraid of, not something to be defined by.

If you have any other reasons why you think failure is important, let me know in the comments and I will add them to the post. I hope you found this helpful. 

Marisa is a globetrotting freelance writer, journalist and editor with cat for hire (her, not the cat). She is currently based in Melbourne.

2 Comments

  • Susan Keogh

    Hmm . . . is failure the same as making a mistake, or are the two different? Making mistakes is certainly a way to learn – but failure can sear your soul. The only thing I learnt from 0 out 24 attempts in my Grade 6 goal-shooting competition was to that I should avoid netball – and it remains one of my few memories of primary school.

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