Jeremy Côté



One of the most difficult things in life to get used to is failure. And yet, we seem to be in regular meeting with it, as if it’s some old friend that we’re trying to avoid but just can’t seem to shake.

To make matters worse, failure is seen as terrible in society. With the amplification of those who succeed versus the dampening of the many more who fail, the signal that is broadcast to the world is that failure isn’t acceptable. Unless, of course, it is part of a success story.

This dance with failure is a strange characteristic of our world. The ones who succeed are able to talk about their failures openly, without fear of being shut out. Why? Because they then succeeded. That’s the only difference between those who failed and those who succeeded.

Furthermore, as a result of trying to compartmentalize people, we characterize people as a “success” or a “failure”. We latch on to the most important thing they are known for, and then we build a persona of them based on this failure or success. As such, we commit two very big mistakes. The first is that we treat those who succeed as complete successes. In other words, an extraordinarily gifted physicist must have had a good grapple on everything in their life.

On the other hand, we do the exact same thing with those who fail. For them, they lose the chance of being heard (at least to a similar degree as the successes). One failure seems to equate to a lifetime of failure.

It’s as if we’re playing a game in which one miss makes us lose, without any chance for redemption. What we’ve done, essentially, is lose our ability to critically look at people and separate their achievements from their failures[^1].

This becomes a problem when it influences how we feel about failure. First and foremost, failure should be about learning something new. When we fail, we have done something that is incorrect. Therefore, the best thing we can do from failure is to learn what we did wrong and correct them for next time. Failure should lead to learning.

But what actually happens is that our society stigmatizes failure so much that people want to avoid it at all costs. Because the consequences of failing can be so harsh, we try to insulate ourselves from anything that can lead to failure. Over the long term, this leads us to “play it safe”, instead of taking risks that could lead to bigger payoffs.

If you want to see this in action, just look at the students who have the highest grades in a class. Chances are, they won’t participate as often when a teacher asks a new and challenging question. They won’t venture an answer, for fear of getting the answer wrong and looking unintelligent. Even with the potential payoff of answering a question right and looking better, these students shrink back from wandering into the unknown. And if this kind of behaviour can begin so young at school, there’s a large chance that it can have further ramifications later on in life.

As we can probably gather, failure is framed as a sort of contradiction. If you want to be successful, there just has to be some story of failure nestled within it. Many of us would even go so far as to say that success is meeting failure after failure and still pressing on.

However, the other side of failure is that those who fail aren’t included in the conversations that we have within social realms. Failure isn’t talked about. It’s almost as if it’s a sort of taboo. We implicitly acknowledge that failure is there, but we do our best to hide it. Only when it leads to a success story do people want to hear it. As such, we rob ourselves from seeing the full image of what happens while we struggle to create and do the best work that we can. It begins to shape our behaviour, making us attempt to avoid failure whenever we can, even to the detriment of large potential payoffs.

Evidently, we are missing a huge opportunity here, and it has to do with not pushing our boundaries. We don’t do it for a simple reason: pushing ourselves is uncomfortable. It’s much easier to stick with what we know we are good at than to go and attempt something new. The former has a reliable track record of being easy to complete, while the latter is different and scary. Therefore, it’s almost unreasonable to expect us to choose the route of trying new things. But, as we all agree with yet never actually do, pushing ourselves to the prospect of failing is a habit we should do more often.

It’s easy for me to write these words, but it’s much more difficult to actually live by them. That’s the challenge we face all the time, and it never gets easier. In fact, that’s the whole point. If it were to get easier, than that would be a signal that you aren’t pushing yourself enough anymore. A greater challenge would then be in order.

Now, I’m also not trying to say that you should go and look to fail. We should always try to do our best, no matter if it is our first or our hundredth time doing a task. Instead, what I am proposing is to go with the ideas that make you excited, regardless of the chance for failure. If you want to try a new art form or a new sport, you shouldn’t stop yourself from trying it because of the small voice of fear in your head that says you might fail. You’ll feel the fear, of course. We all do, every day. However, if you can train yourself to realize when this is happening, you can catch yourself and reflect on what you’re considering. Honestly, is the only reason you’re hesitant about a wild idea is that it seems like you’re likely to fail? If it is, I’d suggest reconsidering your decision to turn down the idea.

The fear of failure is not a good reason for stopping ourselves from doing things that we are passionate about or interested in. Instead, we should use this as a barometer for actually acting on the idea. If the best reason we can find against an idea is that we are fearing failure, than we don’t have enough reason to stop ourselves from acting on the idea.

We may not enjoy failure, but it is practically an inevitable occurrence in all of our lives. The only way to stop ourselves from failing is to stop challenging ourselves, and I think we can agree that this goes directly against those who want to be lifelong learners. It’s fair to then say that learning basically implies the greater possibility of failure. It’s impossible to bypass this.

If we want to learn, we have to accept failure. There’s no negotiation on this point. Once we realize this, we can use the fear of failure to our advantage. Instead of being paralyzed to inaction when this is the only thing stopping us from acting on an idea, we can reflect and know that the possibility of failure is not a good enough reason to give up the potential benefit of doing the things we love.

When the fear of failure comes, reflect on it instead of letting it paralyze you. From there, you’ll be able to do the things that our interesting to you, despite the fear of failing that is ever-present.

[^1] Obviously, this depends on the type of failure or mistake that is made. However, people live long lives and mistakes are made. If we can never look past the failures of others (no matter how long ago), we are setting ourselves up to be a society that is very cynical and unwilling to let people fix their mistakes.