What If I Told You There’s No Such Thing as Failure?

We live in a world in which we’ve been taught that we’re constantly being judged.  

From the moment we begin to understand language we’re taught that our actions must be approved by those around us.  Through school we’re taught that we must perform at a certain level to earn passing grades.  Coaches tell us if we lose games we’re failures.  Society teaches us that those who don’t drive the right kind of car or live in the right part of town are unsuccessful.

I’m calling it!

It’s all a lie!

The way we define success and failure are based from external perceptions rather than internal truths.

I got married in 1999.  I got divorced in 2006.  I divorced for the sake and safety of my infant daughter.  Her mother had a severe case of obsessive-compulsive disorder and anxiety.  She could not care for our daughter.  Whenever I tried to intervene and suggest therapy, a fight would ensue.  After years of problems and months after my daughter was born, I had to make a decision.  I had to protect my daughter.  I filed for divorce.  Although several people from my church saw the seriousness of the situation and applauded my courage for standing up for my daughter, some of those same people spoke of the length of one’s marriage as a measurement of success or failure.

There’s a flawed logic in this kind of thinking.  Failure has nothing to do with the length of one’s marriage.  Failure has nothing to do with one’s financial position or career.

According to Webster’s dictionary, failure is: a falling short, a weakening, a breakdown in operation.  I’d argue, that based on this definition, failure should be taken out of our vocabulary.  Here’s why:

Every race is not the same: In life, we are constantly put in positions in which our outcomes are measured by comparison to some sort of perceived norm.  But there are no absolute norms.  There are as many different kinds of races as there are different kinds of people.  Back in high school I could run a three-minute mile.  But I couldn’t play football.  I wasn’t built for it.  Does that make me a failure?  No.  Did I “fall short?”  No.  I was simply not made for that game.

My marriage ended due to circumstances outside of my control.  Mental illness and the safety of a child were contributing factors.  Even if those factors did not exist, ending a marriage does not equal failure.  Different individuals and combinations of individuals are not all able to run the same race in the same way.

We’re not all body builders: Defining failure as “a weakening” presumes that we are all strong at the start.

This is a weak argument.  Would anyone leave an infant child to fend for itself and then expect the child to survive?  Can we expect a 90-pound girl to lift the same amount of weight as a 250-pound man?  No.  So why do we expect that everyone is built to operate intellectually, emotionally, and socially on the same level?  Why do we quickly judge a lost job or a broken relationship, or even a drug addiction as failure?  Because that’s what we’ve been taught to believe.  But we were taught wrong.  Failure is not “a weakening.”  We all have times in our lives when we are weak, and times when we are strong.  Oftentimes, it’s through our weaknesses that we find renewed strength.  How is that failure?

People are not machines: In my life, I’ve worked on a few assembly lines.  I remember once, an engine blew on a conveyer belt, and we were sent home from work early.  The machine had failed and needed to be repaired.  There was “a breakdown in operation.”  A repairman was called and the conveyer was up and running the next morning.

People are not built like machines.  We can’t be turned on and off with a button.  A doctor can’t just change a brain cylinder to make us work correctly when something is amiss.  Would anyone claim that an individual born with a birth defect is a failure?  No.  Yet, “a breakdown in operation,” is essentially what leads to birth defects.  There is some kind of problem in the system that led to the defect.  That does not mean the result is a failure.  It’s still perfectly beautiful in its own way.

Similarly, a marriage is not a one-size-fits-all relationship.  There are different sets of variables, different parts that make the whole.  If one part breaks down and the marriage ends, the individuals involved have not failed as long as they tried their best to make things work.

So then… what is failure?  I give up.  

I’ve written two books in the past two years.  I’ve barely sold over 100 copies.  Some would call that failure.  But I’m not done yet.  I’m writing a third book.  And I’ll likely write a fourth, fifth, and beyond.  I continue to hone my writing skills and find new ways to share my knowledge and experiences with others.

From my point of view, there’s only one definition of the word failure: “I give up.”  The only failure is not trying to complete something you set out to do.  Quitting.  And even then, giving up, might not always lead to failure.  I’ve thrown 50-page starts of stories away.  I simply gave up on the story.  But a seed from within the trashed story was planted, leading to another, better story.

Perhaps, failure doesn’t exist.  Maybe what we call failure is simply based on our perceived illusions of what we’ve convinced ourselves we should be.

So the next time you think you’ve failed because you’ve bombed a test, lost a job, given up on a project, or gone through a divorce.  Stop.  Think again.  Move on.  

Question: Are there situations and experiences in your life that you’ve falsely labeled as failures?

Today’s post is a guest post by Dan Erickson.  Dan was the child victim of an extreme cult.  He lost his firstborn daughter to birth defects.  His first marriage ended in divorce due to mental illness.  Through all life’s ups and downs, Dan has discovered that as long as we keep trying, we can never fail.  Dan teaches communication courses at a small college in the Pacific Northwest.  He writes songs, poetry, and novels.  He’s the author of A Train Called Forgiveness, and At the Crossing of Justice and Mercy, both based on realities of his own experiences in life.  Learn more about Dan Erickson at http://www.danerickson.net.