On the importance of “failing better”

Dec 12, 2017

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The great Irish playwright Samuel Beckett ("Waiting for Godot") once offered advice not just for writers but for everyone: "Try Again. Fail Again. Fail better."

Beckett's words are at the heart of the creative process: you find your way by moving past mistakes and failures, gaining insights and strength from those failures, and getting better as you go. A writer who hasn't failed often, like anyone who hasn't failed often, simply won't grow in their craft. Getting past failure and mistakes is the only way to gain mastery at any subject or profession, including life itself.

What does failure offer us? The wisdom of humility, persistence, adaptability, and resilience. Failure tests us, forces us to fall back upon our resources of intelligence and passion and (sometimes) our willingness to go on. Failure can be the best education in the world for those who reflect upon it, because we learn the most about our own limitations and our own character when we fail. It is often our failures that make us who we are.

Lots of people crumble amidst failure. Some run away, never to return. Others turn to self-medication, or some escape from perceived "shame" into doing the safe, expected things which are the antithesis of creativity. But like it or not (and you need not like it), life is largely a question of how you deal with failure. We try. We fail. Then what?

And yes, it's important to be smart and have a great plan, a roadmap for where you want to go in the creative life, but life is so often more complex and surprising than we'd imagined. "My life went exactly according to plan," said no one creative person, ever. We have to make choices, always, and those choices define us as artists. So often, it is failure that brings us to the crossroads, taking us places we'd never expected to go. These places can be scary and dark, but they can be amazing and joyous too. Life happens outside our comfort zones, as we navigate failure, loss, and inevitable "changes of plan."

Failure is Growth

I was an English teacher for over a decade, and I always tried to create a safe, supportive, and caring space for my students to fail. I'd challenge them to move beyond what they'd learned yesterday, to see the next step, the next insight.

Most of all, I told them that learners need to be comfortable with failure and the messiness of learning. If you want to learn, to master anything, you need to accept failure, to stare it in the eye, and keep moving forward. My students used to laugh when I'd gleefully re-frame their mistakes as "learning opportunities," but that's exactly what mistakes are. Whether you take advantage of those opportunities is up to you, but you won't grow if you don't.

I don't like the stigmatization of failure, the shame people seem to associate with it. Failure is one of the few things that unites us all, humanizes us, and defines us. We should be talking about failure openly, with an appreciation for what it teaches and the gifts it offers us. Beckett had it right -- keep trying, keep failing, get better, but you'll always be failing. Learn to manage failure -- your own failures and those of the people around you.

Another great writer, Ernest Hemingway, had it right too: "we're all broken, but some of us are stronger in the broken places." We all need to work on our broken places, despite the fear, the pain, and the (insert your inhibition here), because those are the places that give us the best opportunities to grow, to be different, to gain empathy, to be fully human, to tell stories that connect us with others, to find grace and mercy and acceptance.

How I Failed, But Didn’t

I once spent five years writing a single personal essay about my complicated boyhood relationship with my dad, who suffered from mental illness until he died when I was in college. Draft after draft, I failed, often finding myself in tears about my inability to capture the mixture of pain and love I felt for this man. But with each draft, I got closer to what I wanted, transforming the rawness of my emotions into something approaching art. That experience, which ended with my essay getting published in the Sunday Magazine of the Boston Globe, taught me more than anything ever has about the essential relationship between failure and art.

I certainly don't like to fail or to lose or to suffer, and I don't want you to think I'm celebrating failure, but failures (small and large) are the moments when we can learn the most. Use failure wisely, and keep failing better. By doing so, you'll find growth and grace and your future too.

Boston-based Chuck Leddy is a business writer and brand storyteller for B2B brands such as General Electric, ADP, Office Depot, Cintas, the National Center for the Middle Market, and many more. He's also been published in print publications such as the Boston Globe and San Francisco Chronicle.