We’re Getting Failure Wrong

This week I have been seeing a lot of posts about what failure is, and isn’t. Failure, according to social media, is a person with a weak mindset, doesn’t learn, or who gives up. Failing however has been posted as a good thing, it’s an opportunity to learn, something that builds character, and a process of getting something right. I’ve had enough of this garbage playing on words – it’s baloney, it’s damaging, and here’s why.

According to dictionary.com failing is:

  1. an act or instance of failing; failure: His failing is due to general incompetence.
  2. a defect or fault; shortcoming; weakness:

While failure is:

  1. an act or instance of failing or proving unsuccessful; lack of success:

It’s the same thing. Either way you don’t meet the goal, you fail. Why do we feel the need to redefine words? Why is it so hard to say “I failed” and accept and own failure? Because we hate labels? Nope, we pretend to hate labels but we love them as long as they are the right ones. We hate to be labeled a failure, but if someone labels us as smart, witty, intelligent, attractive then we’ll take it. All of it. And more. We just can’t accept a stamp on our head that says “FAIL”, because somehow it labels us for life, and defines us as a person. The reason we cannot accept it has nothing to do with labels. It’s because “failure” and “failing” are experiences, not a state of being, characteristic, or attribute. Yet somehow we let these things define us, and the people who helpfully tell us that “As long as we are learning, we are not failing”, are adding to it. If we didn’t meet our goal, we failed. That’s it. The mission was a failure. Period. That doesn’t mean we can’t learn from it and find good experiences for our next attempt, but this time we failed.

What would happen if we accepted failure as a part of life? What if we accept that others will fail as well? What if we could accept our limitations and not feel the need to achieve in other people’s games? What if I only failed because I didn’t meet a standard someone else had set, and that I didn’t even want to achieve? Am I a failure because I’m not a millionaire, or an author, or any other thing that people find their status in? These memes that attempt to make people feel good about failure inadvertently label people as failures if they don’t learn or take something from the experience. What if someone is so shell-shocked they don’t know what they are meant to be learning? What if they can’t see anything positive in the ashes? Are they a failure because they can’t find the silver lining? They may be well intentioned, but these memes and quotes fail to achieve their objective of encouraging for two reasons:

  1. They assume success or failure are measured not by the individual, but by an external standard. If I were able to run 100m in 12 seconds it would be an amazing success. Usain Bolt would not feel the same sense of achievement. Success and failure are not as easily measured as we like to think and rarely do people stop to ask others what their measure of success will be.
  2. More importantly: People are people. Whether we learn from an experience or not does not define us as a failure. Whether we have a winning mindset or victim mentality does not define us a failure. People are not failures. Things fail. Systems fail. Institutions fail. Society fails. People experience.

The next time someone fails at something and they utter the words “I’m a failure” and you helpfully remind them that as long as they are learning, they are not a failure, you are sending a message that one day if they don’t learn they are a failure. Humans are not failures. We get things wrong. We make mistakes. We make bad choices. We experience failure. We are not failures. Ever. No matter what. We are people.

Picture credit: https://pixabay.com/en/metaphor-falling-down-failure-dry-1209691/


Categories: Development, Performance

1 reply


  1. Training Teens To Be Toddlers – PsychSpot

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