The unexpected lesson I learned from failure

Failure: a photo of a derailed train.

Last week, author Kameron Hurley tweeted about an article she contributed to FemaleFirst titled “10 Things I Learned From Failure.” I’m currently reading Jack Bickham’s The 38 Most Common Mistakes Fiction Writers Make1 as part of my learning all I can about writing a novel while working on my own, so I wasted no time to read it. Hurley has lots of great advice in there, but this resonated with me in particular:

“I don’t fully understand something unless I fail at it.”

I’ve been very fortunate in my life, but while hard work got me a lot of rewards—better jobs, speaking opportunities, article & book deals—it wasn’t usually doing the hard work that taught me the most important things in life. It was failure.

Winning is a wonderful feeling, but like with privilege, winning has a downside: you’re not forced to learn how to do better. The pressure is off, you won, you “already did things right”…right?

Well, yes. But there’s always opportunity for improvement2—even when you win.

This holds true across disciplines, industries, cultural and societal boundaries. In politics, the Left failed to prevent a backlash against the intersectional privileges we were identifying everywhere and in every thing. That failure should become an object lesson in how to engage in less confrontational communication and education, especially on topics that make people defensive. But while the Conservative nihilists won, there are many lessons for them to learn as well—none that they seem interested in learning, however, but I digress.

I’ve failed in life as much as I’ve succeeded. In my career, in my hobbies, in love and romance, in adventuring and exploring. I cherish useful criticism, unlike many people perhaps, precisely because it helps me identify where I have room to grow. My moments of failure have always resulted in greatly improving myself in the immediate future thereafter.

When my job at Apple ended up not working out, I was too close to it during the last few months to really see how, where and why things were going wrong. Afterwards, everything became crystal clear, like all the answers were being presented to me on a silver platter. A cheat sheet for the next test.

In 2012, I gave a talk about Responsive People at the Interlink Conference in Vancouver. In it, I discuss Rembrandt’s habit of taking a step back to look at his work from afar, to see the big picture. When painting, he was always “too close to the details,” he would explain, and he had to step back to make sure he wasn’t going astray.

The greatest failures in my life have taught me the most important lessons I’ve learned. And what I learned from that, itself, is that there is no reason to fear the challenge ahead of you. The greater that challenge is, the more valuable the lessons you can learn from it if you fail. Or even, if you succeed, provided you are willing to be brutally honest and self-critical in your success.

Courage, and how to find it within myself, is the lesson I never expected to learn from failure.

  1. Kickback link. The book is pretty good so far; some great advice, but also some contrived examples. Full review coming soon.
  2. Kaizen: The Key To Japan’s Competitive Success (kickback link). This book details the Kaizen principle of continuous improvement, and has been one of the most influential books in my life. Highly recommended.