How to Embrace Mistakes, Never Experience Failure, and Win at Being You
If I had a nickel for every time I’ve made a mistake, my piggy bank would be visible from space.
When I was younger I thought it was a great idea to buy a new car I couldn’t afford, which ended up getting repossessed and screwing up my credit. Another time I thought it seemed reasonable to date someone for nine months who was an abusive train wreck, which left me with years of unpleasant stuff to process through.
Another time I got a couple questions wrong on a grammar test a friend posted on Facebook.
None of those mistakes came with nickels, but they all proved to be really valuable in the end (except for the Facebook one).
Mistakes are an important aspect of learning that are fundamental to how we grow in life. But so frequently we interpret our simple mistakes as if we’ve committed a terrible crime.
A crime we like to call:
Dun dun DUUUNNNN!
So, is this just a matter of semantics? No, not really. There is actually a big difference between mistakes and failure.
Mistakes are what we call outcomes that are different from what we intended or thought was going to happen. That’s not so bad, is it?
But failures are things that we feel bad about. We feel like we did something wrong, or that maybe there’s something wrong with us. And in the face of “failure,” giving up quite often seems like a reasonable response because, you know… we ”failed” at that thing.
But in actuality, a “failure” is just a mistake that we’ve given teeth to. And failures only come into our experience when we imagine them for ourselves.
“Whoa whoa whoa, did you just say that my failures are imaginary?” -Bob from Accounting
Absolutely. Failure is a mental state, not an external reality.
I hate to break it to you, but you can’t tell the future
Are you able to control everything that happens in your life and the world around you?
No? Me either. None of us can.
So, if none of us are Masters of the Universe that control everything, declaring an error in our efforts a “failure” is pretty unfair, isn’t it?
Another way we can think about this is that mistakes are simply evidence of a lack of experience, which is just an opportunity to practice something.
If being inexperienced is failure, then babies are the biggest failures of all, aren’t they?
But saying that a baby is a failure for being inexperienced is absurd and rather unkind. But it’s still quite common for people to subject themselves to that same sort of unfair and unkind treatment via the voice in their head.
Sure, we’re not babies anymore, but we're also not all-knowing, all-seeing magicians just because we got bigger. We’re just bigger and much more experienced.
If we are ever perceiving something (or worse yet, someone) as a failure, it’s because we lack the context necessary to see what’s really happening.
Mouthful alert: If someone thinks that they see failure, it means that they have arbitrarily plucked a series of events out of what in reality is a continuum, and is then making the bold but mistaken claim that they can determine the nature of the whole by describing their impression of that part.
I told you it was a mouthful. Let me rephrase that:
When you call something a “failure,” you’re saying that you know the future.
Being that neither of us are Masters of the Universe, I know that we can’t predict the future either.
The notion of “failure” comes from a mindset that believes the future can only be a repeat of what's already been experienced. But, the notion that the way something is today determines how it will always be is just silly.
That’s like being in the shower and believing you will be wet forever because you are wet right now.
I brought charts!
To illustrate my point about the arbitrary nature of the “failure” label, this chart demonstrates another way to think about the progression of time and events in our lives.
There are countless events that, depending on perspective, we could declare a success or a failure. But something to notice about this graph is that it’s on a constantly upward trajectory.
A later “failure” is actually part of a period of much greater experience than an earlier “success.”
So, you could just as easily say that an advanced “failure” is substantially more impressive than a rudimentary “success,” because it represents how far you’ve come.
If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not learning, and if you’re not learning and growing, what’s the point of being alive?
“If you’re not making a mistake, it’s a mistake.” -Miles Davis
Did you also notice that “successes” and “failures” are fundamentally interdependent and inseparable aspects of the same process?
Without one, the other isn’t—it’s just a straight line of nothing.
And no matter how much we think we see this next trajectory in other people’s lives, it simply doesn’t exist outside of movie montages and the carefully curated highlight-reels of social media:
How to kill failure
If you ever need to kill a failure, here’s how you do it:
Feed it perspective.
The reality is that every moment is a new opportunity to create a different outcome, and we embody and become whatever we do consistently.
If we give up on our ambitions consistently, we’ll become a self-fulfilling prophecy of “I can’t do that,” with no shortage of examples to “prove” that position.
But if we keep trying, learning, and adjusting, we’ll become a self-fulfilling prophecy of “I am capable of anything I set my mind to and work hard at.”
That formula isn’t a platitude, it’s a reality.
Life is really challenging for all of us, and that’s what makes it worth living. No one is immune from the “success” / “failure” dichotomy, some have just learned to navigate it with greater intention and fluidity than others.
We can all learn this, because life is about progress through practice, not perfection.