Transitions Through Life

Surviving every stage of life.

Celebrate Failure– It's What Most of Us Do

We're all so good at failure so let's embrace it.

Erma Bombeck wrote, "Failing is what most of us do...but we have still managed to go on breathing...I have several reactions when I hear people introduce me [with]...accolades...so glowing that I don't even recognize myself. I figure Mother Teresa just flew in...I would like to propose a new wrinkle to introductions. Instead of listing a speaker's successes, why not list the failures? Born average, our guest tonight never rose above it...Her first and last comedy album ... raced to oblivion...She has never won a Pulitizer Prize...never been interviewed by Barbara Walters...(Washington Post (July 30, 1991, p. B8)"

Ten women, who received Woman of Distinction awards from the National Association of Women in Education, described how they achieved their dreams to college student leaders. They identified perseverance, commitment, and goal setting as key factors. On a different note, the final speaker said, "I want to speak about the failures each of us had had. We would not be standing before you if we had not faced failure, embraced it, and moved on. Remember that successes have more failures than failures have."

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So, if failing is something we all do, something we are all accomplished at, why fight it, why deny it? It is not failing that is the issue but how we cope with it and grow from it.

1. Use failure to your advantage. Retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal was forced to resign for inappropriate remarks he made that were critical of the White House. Did he fade away and die? No. In fact, he lectures in a course on leadership at Yale University called "Coping with Failure." Mark, a senior in high school threw the loosing pass in the final football game. Devastated, he thought he could not go on. However, when it came to writing his essay for college admission, he wrote a dramatic story about his loosing pass and how it has made him a "better" person. He used his failure to get into college.

2. Realize that failing at one thing doesn't mean you are a failure. According to the dictionary, failing is not achieving one's desired goal; it refers to a lack of success. Take the case of the woman who was nominated for a big award. She reported, "I was excited about it. When I got the letter telling me how stellar the nominations were and therefore many wonderful individuals were not designated, I felt very disappointed." I thought of several explanations: "I must not be very good and that is why I didn't get it. Or, OK, I failed in this, but looking at my life as a whole, I am not a failure."

3. Read books about others' experience. Carole Hyatt and Linda Gottlieb, after each failed at a job, decided to write a book on the topic, When Smart People Fail. The authors' concluded, ''There is no such thing as failure. Failure is the judgment of an event: the way you see loss of a job, the closing of a play.'' They interviewed hundreds of people who had been fired or experienced a failing career or marriage. Talk to anyone, and there is a story about failure.

4. Review your coping options. There was a cartoon about Snoopy being depressed because the employee of the month award was given to someone else. Now Snoopy could ask:

a. Can I change the award and make it mine? The answer is no. It is a fact and Snoopy cannot change that award.
b. Can I change the way I look at this situation? Clearly yes. Snoopy can see this as a wake up call-a chance to get more training, to develop new skills, to do what is necessary to turn the situation around.
c. Can I relax as I deal with what I initially defined as a failure? Yes. Snoopy can begin meditating, walking, swimming-anything to reduce the stress level of not achieving success.
So, whenever we are faced with a challenge we can ask ourselves three questions: Can I change what is happening? If not, can I change the way I see it? And can I reduce my stress?

In conclusion, some schools are beginning to focus on helping young people learn character attributes as well as academic skills. The headline of a recent story in The New York Times Magazine "Why our kids' success-and happiness-may depend less on perfect performance than on learning how to deal with failure" highlights the importance of embracing and celebrating failure (September 18, 2011).

Nancy K. Schlossberg
Author, Revitalizing Retirement: Reshaping Your Identity, Relationships and Purpose
Copyright 2011

 

 

Nancy Schlossberg, Ed.D., is a Professor Emerita at University of Maryland, College Park. She is the author of nine books.

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