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  • Georgi Danov

"The Lightbulb Was An Invention With A Thousand Steps"

Failure is a part of life, can't we just accept that?

I will start this article with one of my favourite quotes, which perfectly grasps the way we feel about failure: 'success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan'. Its origin is undetermined, some attribute it to John F. Kennedy, others to the Roman historian Tacitus. It doesn't really matter. What matters is that it is an excellent representation of the way we perceive failure - as a horrible, disheartening, saddening event. One, which we want nothing to do with. We spend hours and days beating ourselves up about our failures, losing sleep, asking ourselves 'Why me?' or 'How could I let this happen?'. We blame ourselves for our mistakes and failures like we blame others for theirs. This isn't surprising, because we have a very complex relationship with failure. In my view, there are two main reasons for this: 1) it hurts our ego and 2) it creates a feeling of shame in front of others.

The ego factor - we all have a sense of self-worth, which simply put, is inflated by successes and deflated by failures. The latter only reinforces the perception that we are not perfect or flawless. And while our rational selves already know this, the problem with ego is that it is a slow learner. It sort of knows it, but it has really hard time accepting it.

The shame factor - while the ego factor is inward facing, shame has an external expression, it has to do with how others perceive us. In this sense, the fear of failure is nothing more than a fear others would think less of us. Some could deny this, but we are social animals, we need others' approval.

What this shows is that our problem with failure is more deeply engrained in our psyche. It has to do with the way we perceive it in the first place. We feel sadness, guilt, shame, deep disappointment, because we have a very unhealthy attitude towards it, one of a degrading, extreme expression of incompetence. So, when we fail, we can react in one of three ways:

  1. Blame shifting - attribute the failure to someone or something else. This is pretty common for egotists or narcissists. Accepting that we have failed creates too much cognitive dissonance, so we have to shift the blame off us to restore our inner peace.

  2. Accepting we failed and we are to blame - this is where we start feeling down, unworthy, miserable and lose sleep over it.

  3. Accepting failure as a fact of life, as a learning and development opportunity, as a stepping stone for future successes.

Options one and two are where most of us are, and option three is where we need to get to if we are to improve our attitude towards failure and stop blaming ourselves. However, this requires a complete change in the way we perceive failure, a shift from a degrading, deeply disappointing experience to a learning opportunity on the way to success. Here are a few things to keep in mind, which will help to make this transition:

Failure Is An Integral Part Of Life

There is no scenario in this world, where we would always succeed or win, this is impossible. Success and failure are functions of time, effort, knowledge, planning, luck and various externalities. In a perfect world, we would have all the time and ability to train, prepare, analyse; we would have perfect knowledge and be able to consider every factor and eventuality, we would have control over all externalities, which could impact our potential for success. But, we do not live in a perfect world and there is only so much we know, so much we can prepare and predict, so much we can control. This will inevitably leave opportunities for failure.

Everybody Fails

There isn't a single person among almost 8 billion of us, who has never failed. We tend to look at successful people and all we see is their success, where they have got to. What we do not see are all the efforts, disappointments, failures and sacrifices they have made to get to this point. This reminds me of another one of my favourite quotes: 'Success is like being pregnant. Everyone says Congratulations, but nobody knows how many times you were f***ed'.

Take one the most successful entrepreneurs in the world as an example - James Dyson - the inventor of the famous Dyson vacuum cleaners. He had to create 5127 prototypes before he got it right. One could argue he had 5127 failed attempts or tried 5127 times until he succeeded. He is now a billionaire, just saying.

Failure As A Learning Opportunity

They say the only real mistake is the one we learn nothing from. I would say the same about failure. There is something we can learn every step of the way, as long as we open our minds and perceive failure not as a destination, but as a part of the journey. If failure is inevitable, the best we can do is pick ourselves up, learn and do better next time.

We Failed, So What?

We are a pretty resilient species. However bad the problem, mistake or failure is, there is very little we cannot recover from. Every time I feel I have failed at something, I stop and ask myself the question: 'So what?' or 'What is the impact?'. Most of the time, we worry about things, which have little impact on our lives in the grand scheme of things. And even if they did, there is usually something we can do about it.

And Yet...

I cannot help but wonder 'Does any of the above really help?'. The problem with failure is that is has an emotional expression, just like every other feeling. And just like any other feeling, it is unsusceptible to logic. Our conscious, rational brains know that we probably shouldn't worry as much or we can get through it, it is not the end of the world. But, we are not completely rational species. We cannot be. The feelings of sadness, disappointment, blame, guilt can only go away if we walk that transformational path all the way and stop seeing failure as something negative. Regardless of how many logical arguments I can pull in support of this view, realistically I don't think that even the most devoted stoic could fully embrace it. As I write this, I am thinking 'Do I agree with what I am writing myself?'. My rational brain certainly agrees; it all makes sense, doesn't it. But would I only see the positive side of failure as a learning opportunity and a stepping stone next time I fail? Not a chance! And this is because at the end of the day, we are simply humans, we love, we hate, we suffer. I am under no illusion that no article or motivational speaker in this world (I do not consider myself one), can change this. All I am hoping to achieve is help to reduce the worries and those disheartening feelings created by failure, at least a little. Not because, we will not fail again, but because we know we are bound to and we can't have it any other way.

I will conclude with a famous quote by Thomas Edison, when asked how he felt having failed a thousand times until we invented the light bulb, to which Edison responded, 'I didn't fail a thousand times. The light bulb was an invention with a thousand steps'.

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