We Can Learn From Failure

with 3 comments

Earlier today I went to a very inspiring meeting with a group of innovative communicators, to discuss ideas around community and social engagement.

During the course of this meeting there was a bit of discussion around the fact that while we are often happy to share our success stories to help inspire others, generally speaking we tend to hide our failings from public scrutiny. That as a culture, we tend to fear failure – that failure is in some way unacceptable.

Ok, this is a bit of a generalisation, but it is a theory that has been given a lot of consideration by various psychologists over the years. I think it was the existentialist psychologist Rollo May who said something along the lines of

“…as human beings we always strive for some sense of perfection – possibly because we exist in an imperfect state”

I don’t think the implication here is that we are all perfectionists per se, but more so that there is something in all of us that wants to paint the perfect picture, or write the perfect poem, story, article etc.

For a very basic example of this, look at TV shows such as the X Factor or Britain’s Got Talent. Thousands of people striving to be ‘the best’ at what they do. Of course, there is absolutely nothing wrong with having ambition – in fact if we didn’t have ambition then nothing would ever get done.

But equally it is ok to be…well ‘ok’ at what you do in your life.  It is also acceptable to fail, because we can learn from failure.

As David Robinson, Co-Founder of east London charity Community Links  wrote in his book ‘Unconditional Leadership’:

“We can expect to develop our understanding from …[failed] experience, with lessons which could not have been learned in any other way. This is a ‘good failure’”

Life is full of these good failures.  From the ones that have little impact – such as failing numerous times before perfecting the best cake recipe –  to those which have a larger impact on those around them – such as the break up of a marriage or the failure of a business.

Every failure is an opportunity to learn something new, and I believe that sharing the ‘things that didn’t go so well’ with others, can not only help with our own personal development, but also the learning and understanding of others.


3 Responses

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  1. Lores….

    There is no question from what I have seen in my experiences that we do tend to push our successes to the forefront and conceal our shortcomings. And do so often in unhealthy ways.

    In recovery, we have a saying, “Don’t compare your insides to other people’s outsides”.

    I had an awakening moment when this was first quoted to me. Truly, it is what so many of us do. We know our own shortcomings. Yet often, all we see of others is the outside portrayal of their successes. Then we end up comparing the full picture of ourselves to the partial picture of others and end up feeling like crap.

    One staggering lesson I learned when my wife packed it in many years ago … and I felt like a total failure…. I began to look at other couples I knew and say, “If only I had what they have”, presuming that my read of their external portrayal was their full picture.

    The guy I put at the top of my comparison list was a business colleague of mine. He adored his wife, was hugely successful, and had adorable, picture-perfect kids.

    A couple months after my wife left, he called me and urgently wanted to meet. He knew of my deeply depressed state so I thought he wanted to reach out to me. Instead, he wanted to get together because his wife had just told him that she wanted a separation.

    Yes, Mr. and Mrs. Perfect were on the brink. You would never know in a million years by looking at their exterior. (Gladly, they held it together in the end).

    Another instance was an old friend of the family who I knew from church circles. He was an older, very successful gentleman, who was a dyed in the wool Penetcostal Christian. Just after my horrific deviation into the world of cocaine, I ended up talking to him in a totally unreated circumstance. It turned out that someone had broken my anonymity and told him I was a coke addict.

    I said to him in this conversation, I am aware that you know of the problem I went through… I was a little embarrassed and probably came accross apologetically. To which he replied, “I don’t know a single person who has done anything in their lives who does not have a major incident in their lives. And I know a lot of people”!

    He said this to reassure me that me having a major incident in my life was actually normal. He had been through a ton of life. Knew many, many people.

    The point I suppose is that we all have things inside that we do not acknowledge openly (nor should we). And we all tend to put our best foot forward to show our positive side and achievements.

    On the rare occasion where I have told people about my past addiction, they are always shocked. I tend to portray myself as quite the opposite of a coke addict and alcoholic. So I suppose I am no different than those you post about.

    The quote…. “Most men lead lives of quiet desparation”, is quite meaningful I feel. It describes this topice.

    I do not believe for a second that we have any need to be fully open with everyone about our past, our failures, or our insides. We would however be wise to share this with at least one trusted person and deal with our past or failings so they do not handicap or undermine our successes.

    I know I spent a lot of years hiding from my failures. Until one day, I finally discovered that the only person I was hiding them from was me. And eventually, the fact that I hadnt resolved some key things eventually undermined my successes.

    I am a few years past the worst manifestations of these failings. And anything worthwhile I have to share in my writing or posting is a result of a long and dedicated journey back from the results of those failures.

    Today, I fully accept them and keep them in proper perspective. I do not allow myself to regret them or my thoughts or anyone else to accuse me for my failings.

    This leaves me free to function in my successes and aptitudes. And as failures happen, I have somewhere to go with them. For me, it is my AA support group and sponsor. They help me deal with them and stay functioning in life.

    So yes, I fully concur with your observations.

    And am enjoying floating around your blog. I didnt realize you had done so much posting. Love your photos.




    May 16, 2009 at 4:02 am

  2. Chaz

    Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and observations

    As you say there are always the ‘perfect’ people and situations around us all, and we use them as a comparison. But its not helpful because we forget that those ‘perfect’ people have failed in their past as well.


    Laura 🙂


    May 16, 2009 at 10:22 am

  3. Lores…. sometimes the perfect people are failing right now. We are just not seeing it.


    May 16, 2009 at 3:56 pm

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