Failing Does Not Necessarily Mean Failure

Why is it that when we make a mistake or see a setback, many individuals feel as though the original goal we set out to accomplish is now a lost cause or possibly even a complete failure? Is it that what we wanted to achieve is now hopeless and no longer worth our time? Perhaps, in some circumstances this may be the case, as we have all had goals that we have had to decide to be no longer attainable. However, for the vast majority, I would argue they are within our reach, yet our determination weakens as we encounter setbacks. Therefore, the question in this work is why does our initial passion subside and finally become so easily depleted, seemingly due to setbacks which are in reality, minimal? The answer, I suggest, is due to what our leaders, teachers, and parents have not taught us, rather than what they have taught.

So what do I mean by concluding that our mentors have failed to teach, rather than focusing on what has been taught. I’d like to start out by an example.  One morning I took five minutes in the beginning of class, starting out showing my students one of my articles that was recently published. Of course they were all very kind as well as complimentary of the piece, which I truly appreciated. However, after many praises, I proceeded to show them all of the rejections which I have received from a vast number of editors and publishers. Now, when I refer to all the “no thank you” replies, I do not mean a small figure of four or five. The numbers range up into the 40 to 50’s. Yes, although it is difficult for me to put that in print, that which never goes away, those numbers are correct, if not low. Much like any other aspect in life, it typically takes a large amount of work to succeed in even small increments. However, the message I wanted to send to my students is that despite “failing” in terms of accomplishing having my articles published in the majority of the many publications I submitted them to, I also succeeded. On average seven to twelve publications will love my work, allowing me to lose, while I simultaneously win. More importantly, the bigger issue is that failing…… OK.

Why is this message so important to send? The short answer is because the topic is so fundamentally simplistic, we have greatly overlooked it. However, going into more detail, I would argue because as complex creatures in a 21st century society, we have evolved to simply put our best features at the forefront. In a constant struggle to succeed we promote our accomplishments, while discreetly, but quickly shoving the failures under someplace where no one looks. The problem being that this is not only a trend among adults, but it is a taught and learned lesson by those who exert influence. Consequently, our children as well as our students grow into this custom of feeling like a failure, in terms of their innate characteristics, for failing within only one context of their lives.  However, the differences between these two “failings” could not be both more defined as well as far enough apart.

Despite these realities, this vital lesson of “successful failure” if you will, is not taught. This lesson is not focused on by educators, at least not in a direct manner with the intention to combat this feeling of failure in young adults. As this lesson, in its core is common knowledge, I am certain that there are teachers that pursue this message.  Adding to that, my personal belief is that most credible mentors, teachers, and parents tell students to keep trying, pick yourself up, dust off, and get out there again, which of course is excellent advice. However, where do you see the adult that actually lives as well as exhibits the example? For some reason, adult failures seem to be off limits, hidden, and without a doubt unfit to share with those who we influence, such as our children and students. Of course there are adult problems that need to be kept within the privacy of those individuals, and we should all have that right. Without a doubt we are not trying to reward or promote failure as a goal. Yet, I would argue that for every reasonable opportunity revealed to us, as educators we should point out our own flaws as much as our successes, ultimately demonstrating that failing, does not ultimately make you a failure.

Dale Schlundt holds a Master’s Degree in Adult Education with a concentration in American History from the University of Texas at San Antonio and is currently an Adjunct Professor for Palo Alto College.

16 Responses to Failing Does Not Necessarily Mean Failure

  1. Dan Erickson says:

    Our social system, our schools, our religious institutions, our families have all supported this idea that failure is “Bad.”  I’ve always disagreed.  Great entrepreneurs know that failure is needed, and that it’s not really failure, but another step in the learning curve toward success.

  2. Justin says:

    Hi Dale,
    I take the belief that failure means I’m trying. I remember sending a guest post to another blog and the owner rejected it. He said he wanted a post that had more of a story with it. So I wrote a new one for him with more of a story in it. He rejected it again.

    The guest post eventually was published in a book by a friend of mine. Keep moving and keep doing I say. :)

  3. Failure of sorts allows us to correct, to review. I did not like failure, like many I had that negative association to it and fought it every step of the way. When we embrace it, we can dance with it and in doing so, create magic! 

  4. As a society, we’ve been conditioned to look for immediate gratification from our efforts. If we don’t get it, we consider the effort a failure and move on to the next thing. This is a problem born of expectations.

    When results are slow to come, we quickly lose motivation and seek something else that will provide us with more immediate rewards. What’s lacking is the persistence to keep on, even after our initial failures.

    Failure should be welcomed for what it is . . . a lesson.


  5. In my opinion failing is not only OK, it is a vital part of the process of evolving. If you never fail you are either not trying, not doing anything difficult or simply not reaching far enough. Fail but fail fast and then learn and move on!

  6. Pingback: Failing Does Not Necessarily Mean Failure | Time Management Magazine

  7. Mark Bowness says:

    Great article. Having ‘failed’ a number of times I understand and ‘get this’. Nevertheless, what interests me is where the word ‘failure’ originally came from. Instead of the word ‘failure’ a word could have been created which means ‘what we learn until we reach our goal’. In this way failure would not have existed in people’s minds and we would understand that it is a case of trial and error until we get to the end product. 

  8. Success_Strategy_Partners says:

    This article struck a chord, as I have been running into a lot of people both personally and professionally who seem to lack the ability to persevere.  Setbacks are a part of life and can be the most effective teachers — I hope to help more people realize that!

  9. Harshit says:

    I can most certainly vouch for the fact that failure is not fatal since I have gone through tough times when nothing seemed to be working but it all passed away and good times returned a couple of years later.

  10. “Fail fast, fail hard.” because then you can learn from your mistakes and move on to bigger and better things. 

  11. Jorge Blanco says:

    Certainly. Failures are our tickets for growth and learning. If we don’t go through failure, we’ll never become stronger and wiser individuals.

  12. Otrotipomas says:

    Sometimes you can try again.

    But, and here is the BIG but. There are a lot of  ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunities.

    Failing is not OK.    Failing ,more often than not, equals permanent defeat.

    A doctor can save a patient, but not the patient. 
    a soldier can evade a bullet, but not the bullet.

    Failing  has a cost. The loss last forever.

    Do not deceive yourself.

     The goal was not to get a job. it was to get THE job.

    Failing Is failure.

    Time matters.  You may succeed on Other goal. 
    But the original battle is lost for good.

  13. Pam Sallegue says:

    This is related to my post . This is indeed a great article, and I believe on what you’re saying.  Life will throw us many reasons to feel down, and feel like we’re the biggest loser in this world, but it’s normal. Challenges, pains — they make us feel human, make us feel normal.  You just have to learn how to stand up, and expect more of those pains, but always learn from those.

  14. Maya Mendoza says:

    These comments are interesting reading. Otrotipomas has made some very good, if not black and white points, and it is true that sometimes, when we emotionally over identify with a goal or aim way too high (for our experience and talents at that time) that failure to achieve what we set out for can be devastating and terminal. 

    However as Trevor Wilson says; when failure (and opportunity to retreat, regroup and regroup) is seen as a lesson (not a dead end) and a mechanism for enabling progress and developing persistence and tenacity, then self-improvement and self-enchantment is as inevitable as the success that follows. 

  15. Pingback: Lessons in Understanding Failure | IQ Matrix Blog

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