The surprising benefits of failure

24 May 2017 - Inspiration

At her commencement speech at Harvard University in 2008, J.K. Rowling said, “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all—in which case, you fail by default.”

Yet, despite the universality of failure, we’re terrified of it. Success/failure is a rigid binary that terrifies rather than inspires. It also seems almost impossible to distinguish ourselves from our failures; we become failures when we fail.

At school, we encounter some failure but aren’t really taught how to use it. It isn’t much of a surprise that even as adults, we fear it to the point where we stop trying altogether.

But failure is also often what many people list as their main ingredient for success. Perhaps the key then is to relearn what ‘failure’ means and use it to our advantage. As Rowling points out, “[W]e all have to decide for ourselves what constitutes failure, but the world is quite eager to give you a set of criteria if you let it.”

How can we rethink failure?

1. Failure strips away the inessentials.

Failure gives us the painful but necessary push to stop hiding behind the limitations we impose upon ourselves. When there’s nothing left to lose, we are forced to confront ourselves with what matters most.

In her commencement speech, Rowling said, “[When I failed] I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.”

2. Failure makes you secure in yourself.

“Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations,” Rowling said. “I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected. The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive.

3. Failure teaches you things you can learn no other way.

Failure may feel more painful than success, but it teaches us much more than success ever will. Rowling said, “You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true gift, for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more than any qualification I ever earned.”

4. Failure prepares you for success.

American comedian Ellen DeGeneres once said, “Failure gives you the proper perspective on success.” No success is sweeter than one that is hard-won. Having known failure, we would be also able to experience success with more gratitude, humility and empathy.

5. Focus on what lasts.

Renowned Finnish operatic singer Tom Krause once said, “There is no such thing as failures—just experiences and your reactions to them.” Both failure and success are temporary and matter much less than the character of the person that remains standing at the other side of the experience.

In the end, being afraid of failure is normal—we just have to be more afraid of not succeeding. To quote Anaïs Nin, “The day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”

How do you define success and failure? We'd love to hear from you at hello@mindful-company.com.

- The Mindful Company Team