Is failing too many times a bad thing?

A friend and I were discussing how a young person finds their passion in life. I believe passion for your work as with everything else is very important. However, it often doesn’t present itself to us unless we actively pursue it. This usually means trying many things especially when we are young. When I shared this view with my friend he responded by saying “You don’t want to fail too many time because people start to see you as having some defect.” In other words he was saying that you don’t want to ever be seen as a failure by failing too often.  Even though I think he is being pragmatic I generally do not agree with this view. I don’t think failure is the problem in itself but rather the fear of failing. It is the fear of failing that limits our potential for greatness. At the very least it is comes in the way of our happiness.

The first question raised by his statement is whether failing is detrimental to our well being? My answer is that it isn’t. I am not advocating setting up oneself for failure as it is self evident that failure is never the end in anyone’s mind. On the contrary everyone of us seeks to be successful, however since we usually have imperfect knowledge we are bound to stumble along the path to success. I don’t believe failing, even numerous times, in the pursuit of a goal is negative as long as we learn something in the process. The path to success in life as in nature is to improve iteratively. The world we know today didn’t come to be the way it is without going through  the process of trial and error. However, unlike nature, we possess the faculty of reason, so rather than leaving the outcome to chance we can learn from our experience to improve the odds in our favor every time we iterate. Although I believe failing is generally positive because it means we are aspiring towards something more than we currently possess, I do simultaneously hold the position that the inability to learn from our mistakes is bad since we are doing our intellect a disservice by not using it to guide us. As long as we see failure as an opportunity to learn and better ourselves so that we are more capable to accomplishing our goals it can never be bad for us.

The second part of my friend’s statement was that failure is bad because people start perceiving you in a negative light. This implies that they lose confidence in your abilities and this can impact you negatively in your career and relationships with other people. I do not subscribe to this view and believe it is based on faulty reasoning. The true judge of success lies within us and not without. Why should we care about the opinion of others when they are transient like everything else in life? The people that we care to impress might be with us today but gone tomorrow. In regards to most people we meet along our life’s path their memories eventually fade. Knowing this it seems silly to put so much weight in other people’s judgement. If we are lucky; only a handful of people will walk with us for a good part of our journey through life but even the closest to us will leave us at some point along the way. The only constant is us. We have to assess our failures and successes on our own terms and not those of others. The minute we start seeking the validation of other people we have failed in being true to ourselves. This might be the only real failure that exists.

The argument can be raised however, that there are objective failures contingent on the expectation of others. Failing a test or failing to meet a deadline at work for instance. These indeed do have real consequences that are dependent on the approval of minds other than our own. My view on these type of failures is that they are negligible in the grand scheme of things. Failing a test or the inability to meet a deadline does not define you as a person. Your perspective on how you internally deal with these types of failures does. This perspective is yours and yours alone. If you have taken something of value and internalized it as a result of failing on some task how can you be a failure?

We often overstate how much other people are invested in our lives. Everyone is fighting their own battles and therefore too preoccupied with themselves to really heed our failures as much as we give them credit. Often it is only in our minds that others are attaching the label of failure upon us. In reality people forget very easily and if they do remember they don’t fixate on it as much as we do. Even if some people did care enough to use what they see as our failures against us, the modern world we live in is so large that it isn’t hard to start over with someone new. No one knows what lies within us, good or bad, but us. We have the power to reveal our inner selves to them only if we choose to. It is incorrect to think of failure as a physical marker that follows us around for the rest of our lives. It only will if we allow it to in our own minds.

I truly believe failure is not bad but is in fact a positive feature of our existence as long as we adopt the correct perspective. All of intelligent life is learning and implementing. Pursuing things bigger than ourselves falling down a few times in the process is what makes life worth living. We should see these as trials in perfecting a product much like companies do when it comes to manufacturing. However, in this case the product is the most important thing to us in the universe – ourselves. We are never too young or too old to fail and as long as we don’t fear failure we are free. I heard this on Casey Neistat’s Vlog the other day and think it is fitting to end with it:

The most dangerous thing in the world is to play it safe.

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