There’s a pervasive idea that success and failure are two opposing ideas. We envision them on opposite ends of a line representing time and progress. If we’re realistic, we imagine that line jagged with ups and downs, detours and distractions. There are some popular memes that illustrate this point splendidly.
But even this imaging is unrealistic and problematic.
This view suggests a linear movement from failure to success. It promotes the idea that, if we work hard enough, we will emerge from a place of failure (painted as dark and destitute, lonely and shameful) and live in a land of success (chock-full of pink butterflies and money on trees).
Bide with me for a moment and let’s re-envision that typical scale of success and failure: grab the word “Failure” in your left hand and “Success” in your right hand and slide them closer and closer until they’re touching in the middle. Then put one on top of the other and smush them down and around like you might do with two balls of Play-Doh. Success and failure are intertwined thusly.
Failure is never permanently behind us and success is not ever-looming in the future. Failure is not something that just needs to be overcome and success is not something that just needs to be achieved. It’s an approach too simplistic and dualistic for such a complex subject.
We brush aside failures like they’re not meant to be there, like we’re aiming for a 100% failure-free life. What does that even look like? Not very interesting, I can tell you that. And it won’t include any of the growth or maturity that leads to “success” either.
It may be difficult to envision how the acceptance of failure feeds into success. To answer this question, let’s ask ourselves what success looks like on a daily basis. Daily success is reflected in lessons learned, skills developed, and values held.
And how do we access those lessons, skills and values?
Success is just an accumulation of mistakes and sweat and tears. It’s not a state of glorified perfection; it’s the representation of uncomfortable emotions and unflinching self-reflection.
It’s the essence of trial and error. It’s the fortitude built through miscalculations. It’s the dedication developed during long, arduous tasks. It’s the patience bred through wasted time. It’s the knowledge gained through dead-end explorations.
It’s the culmination of exasperation, impatience, impropriety, faithlessness and disappointment.
Success is our failures coming to fruition.
In accepting and reframing our failures, we are exuding success instead chasing success.
The first step
In situations of addiction, acknowledgment of the problem is the first step. That’s how the simple admission of “My name is Sally and I’m an alcoholic” has started many Alcoholics Anonymous members on the road to recovery. Freedom comes from acknowledging what was previously denied, hidden, or reasoned away. They choose to stop ignoring reality.
We, too, need to stop ignoring reality. We need to demolish the image of a linear journey from failure to success. Failure is meant to be embraced and is irremovable from success. It is the greatest tool we have for personal growth.
By equally welcoming these two components as part of a life well lived, we’ll spend less time wondering what went wrong and more time focused on what’s next.
Let success and failure coexist.