Failure. We love to talk about failure and put it on a pedestal. Accept failure, embrace failure, even chase failure. Dare to fail, and fail better. One quote even said, “Don’t think of it as failure – think of it as time-released success.”

That’s great until we actually fail. Then our love affair with failure falls apart.

Failure sucks. 

And at some point, we’re all going to experience it.

Some of you may have embraced a “fail-fast” approach in your work as a way to get more quickly to the best solution. I get it. But for me, when I start something, I’m never hoping I’ll fail. I’m almost always chasing some version of success. How that success is defined varies from one thing to another, but I can tell you this… I’ve personally never rolled out of bed in the morning with failing as my goal.

If you’re reading this, you and I probably aren’t that different. We want our projects at work to be successful, our clients and coworkers to like us, and our businesses to prosper. We want our relationships at home to thrive, and we want our friendships to grow. We want to increase our health, move a little bit ahead, and experience positive growth in the rest of the areas of our lives. I don’t think I’m alone in wanting these things… we all want success in one form or another. It makes us feel good, builds our confidence, and allows us to live life just a little more boldly.

So what happens when we do fail?

If we’re all chasing success in our lives, and we agree that failing from time to time is simply part of the process, how can we fail without feeling like a failure? Here are three keys to remember…

First, you need to separate who you are as a person from your failure. When I got divorced, I wrestled hard with this. I felt like a failure. Specifically, I felt I had failed my kids. There was nothing about losing my first marriage, letting go of the home I had built, and shifting to having my kids with me half-time that made me feel successful. Failing in my marriage made me feel small, embarrassed, and weak.

It took me a while to separate who I am from my failure. It took me a while to understand that although my marriage had failed, I was not a failure. There was some soul searching that had to happen to peel the two apart, but separating them was powerful.

Next, we need to resist the urge to play it safe. Once I was able to separate myself from my failure I had to face another demon, an even bigger one… If I tried something big and failed, would it make sense to try it again? If I had already failed once, why in the world would I risk repeating my first defeat? Wouldn’t it be a lot easier to just protect myself from the chance I’d fail again? 

That was the mindset I embraced for a while. The best way to prevent failure was to only try things I knew I could succeed at. It seemed like a pretty safe way to live life. 

But that was the problem. It was safe.

That’s the core issue with not accepting failure as an option. You never take risks. And without the risks, you never reap the rewards. You safely succeed all the time, but only on a very limited level. Not accepting failure as an option limits your ability to create anything amazing in your life, because your fear is in the driver’s seat with its foot on the brake. 

This extends far beyond marriages and relationships. I’ve had to embrace this thinking in my work as well, where we’ve invested massive amounts of time and energy into launching a new project – something that should be wildly successful. It should be a big win, but it might not be, and that’s the risk. We might fail. It might not work as well as we think right away… but if it doesn’t, we’ll refine our process and try again.

Trying again is the third key. Elon Musk has been the face of failure for years leading SpaceX. YouTube is filled with videos of fiery crashes and exploding rockets, each one on a very public stage. For Musk, his failures are on full display for the whole world to see, with the same jarring images that fill Hollywood action movies. He could have decided early on not to risk his ego or his reputation. As he put it though, knowing SpaceX was likely to fail, “it was worth trying anyway.” And so Musk tried, and failed, and failed again. And amid those failures, he kept pushing and trying until he created success. Most would have quit, but he kept going.

The things in life that mean the most, and lead to the most amazing experiences, require risk. They’re all things that may lead to failure, but they’re worth trying anyway because if they succeed, the rewards are great. And, they’re worth continuing to chase even if failure comes the first time, or the second, or the third… the only really failure comes when we roll over and quit.


The Takeaway

You don’t have to love failure, or put it on a pedestal… but whatever you do, don’t let your fear of it paralyze you into doing nothing. None of us enjoys it, but remember this: failing doesn’t make you a failure. The only failures are the ones who play it safe and don’t ever take the risk in the first place.