I Wish I Had Known: Failure is Universal, Recovery is Unique

“And why do we fall Bruce? So we can learn to pick ourselves back up” – Wayne Senior, Batman

A great movie and an even greater thought: why do we fail? So we can learn from it.

In my last post, I talked about failure – the fact that it is a very real possibility – and that is something I think most students (and adults) don’t appreciate.

So now that we have discussed that failure is possible, I wanted to discuss (with some encouragement from my friend Josh Hong) the next reality: at some point in your life, you will fail. The fact that you will fail is not what will define you – everyone fails. Not to use the most over-shared analogy, but Edison didn’t get the light bulb right the first time. What will define you is not that you fail – that is a universal experience. What will define you is how you react to that failure – how you approach it, deal with it and move past it.

I Thought Only Failures Failed

It might sound like a bit of circular logic, but my original thinking was that only failures fail. Let me explain that a bit further. Failure is an outcome – it’s when you don’t achieve or realize your end goal. If you wanted to be first, and you only come second, that could be seen as a failure. If you wanted to start a company, and it didn’t work out as you planned, you were a failure. What I started to believe is that some people were just genetically failures – they didn’t have the drive, perseverance, and diligence to succeed. Therefore, if I myself failed, I would thus be classified as a failure.

I believed that if you planned enough, did enough research, and executed well, you were guaranteed success – unfortunately that’s simply not true. You can do everything right, but an extenuating circumstance can throw your best plans out the window.

In that mind frame, failure becomes a feared outcome. You don’t want to do something because you might fail at it. By failing at it, you yourself become a failure. It becomes something to avoid. Looking back over the last ten years of my life, I can regrettably point out several things I did not do because I thought I might fail at them.

In my opinion, one of the greatest tragedies of our lives is realization of opportunity lost due to fear of failure. At some point in our lives, we have all experienced it. Perhaps we didn’t run for a spot on our Student’s Union because we feared the potential public embarrassment from failure. Perhaps we didn’t ask for a promotion because we feared the rejection from our boss (read: failure).

Whatever the reason, during the early stages of our lives we get ‘shock trained’ into avoiding failure if at all possibility. We are trained to take the conservative path (why do you think so many people seek refuge in the security of designations?). Rather than take the path of least resistance, we are taught to take the path of least failure. However, in my opinion, that is impossible.

Some of the most successful people I have had the privilege of meeting over the last few years are professional failures. They have failed at this, that, and everything in-between. However, if these people have failed, why aren’t they failures? It perplexed me. How can someone who fails so often, be such a success? Then it hit me – failure was not what separated these people from everyone else. Rather, they separated themselves by how they reacted to that failure – how they learned, grew and responded – they separated themselves through how they recovered.

I Learned That Failure Was Not Unique, Recovery Was

What I learned was that failure was not unique – in fact, it was the opposite of my original hypothesis. Successful people usually had a higher rate of failure then the average person. What made them successful was that they learned from each failure, and applied those learning’s to future encounters – with each failure, they grew more intelligent, savvy and wise.

Now, I am not encouraging you to go out and fail everything you can. No one should set out with the intention to fail – that is obviously counter-intuitive. The object is to set out with the goal to succeed, but when you come across failure – as you assuredly will – you take failure more as a temporary setback then a final stop. Failure, if used to add value to your future attempts, can be one of the most valuable experiences. As the saying goes, “nothing fails like success because we don’t learn from it. We learn only from failure. “

True greatness is not made in success; it is made in trying, failing, recovering and then succeeding. 

Caveat: If You Aren’t Failing, You Aren’t Growing + Only Valuable if You LEARN

Here is a caveat – if you aren’t failing at all, something is wrong. If it’s smooth sailing in your life, you most likely aren’t pushing yourself. You are living within your comfort zone; no failures = no challenges. Few people win the gold medal on their first try, just like few people are successful on their first try – everyone starts somewhere. In order to grow, you almost always need to fail first. What would have happened if you gave up on walking the first time you tried and failed as a baby?

Here’s the second caveat: failure is only valuable is you learn from it. If you fail a final exam because you didn’t study, then fail a second because you didn’t study, guess what? Both those lessons seem to be wasted on you. The only value in failing is if you ‘fail forward’ – if you use the lessons that failure taught you to add value to your future encounters. What I am saying, is don’t console yourself if you keep failing, saying “oh, I am failing so much, I must be on to something big!” Wrong. Failure in itself is not valuable – learning from failure is the true value. Successful people aren’t successful because they failed; they are successful because they learned from their failures.

If I Could Go Back

If I could go back, I would remove the fear of failure from my psyche. Yes, a small amount of fear is good – but nothing near the level present in most students/adults. I wouldn’t qualify my interest in activities off the fear of failure in that particular activity – I would pursue whatever was of interest to me. I wouldn’t take a job or internship because it was ‘safe’ – I would take what intrigued me.

I would also be more diligent in assessing my failures. It is the operating maxim of most people (myself included) to shrug off failures. The real value is assessing what happened, appreciating it, then applying it to the future. In my last post where I came close to failure, I always wonder what would have happened to me if I had failed. Failing would not have been what defined me – what would have defined me is how I reacted to that failure. Would I have re-taken the courses, righted the ship, and continued on stronger than ever, or would I have given up? I can’t be sure unfortunately, but I like to hope it wouldn’t have been the latter of the two.

To the point: I would not guide my decisions off fear of failure. We all fail. When you fail though, the world gets to see what you’re made of – not because you have failed, but by how you respond to that failure. After you get kicked in the teeth, can you get back on the horse?

To finish, I thought I would share some of my favourite quotes on failure:


“Our greatest glory is not in never falling but in rising every time we fall.”


“Defeat is not the worst of failures. Not to have tried is the true failure.”
 – George E. Woodberry

“Nothing fails like success because we don’t learn from it.  We learn only from failure.”
-Kenneth Boulding

“Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.”
 -Robert Francis Kennedy

“The greatest failure is the failure to try.”
       -William A. Ward

“The only time you don’t fail is the last time you try anything – and it works.”
       -William Strong


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