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Warning: Reading this may fry your retinas. When it comes to the subject of failure, brevity is clearly not my forte (Despite repeated attempts I failed—how apropos—to make this post shorter. Sometimes that happens when words get in the way of what I want to say.) So cozy up & settle in for a longer-than-usual heart to heart.
How to transform Failure from Scarlet Letter to
Badge of Honor
Live Life Well
Hello & Welcome!
I'm Cindy & so very delighted
to make your online acquaintance.
"If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly."
Life is like a labyrinth. A maze full of dead ends. Wrong directions & re-routes. What I like to refer to as the hero’s journey (Joseph Campbell), because it takes the sting out of things & re-frames life's challenges into opportunities for adventure.
My intention is not to romanticize failure. Success is preferable, of course. I’d rather learn from success, & I’m getting better at it.
But the fact of life is that whenever our reach exceeds our grasp, there’s bound to be failure. It’s not only probable, but also inevitable. We know this. But then we get scared & forget.
Establishing my Credentials as a Failure
Take my husband & me for instance. Although we’ve had our forays into gainful employment with mixed results, we’re serial entrepreneurs (we say soulpreneurs, because, well, we’re corny like that). And we refer to our work as putting “our hours where our happy is” (again with the corny).
We have an inspired business surrounded by people we admire & respect, full of joy & impact with flexibility to live life the way we want to, including hanging together most of the time, which we love.
But we’re also aficionados of failure.
As you may know when you start a business you sign-up to fail. It’s well publicized that most businesses bomb in the first year. And 94% of those call it quits in the 3 years after that.
Entrepreneurship runs counterintuitive to survival instinct. It’s less of a job title & more a state of mind that takes a level of determination bordering on delusion.
No entrepreneur has ever taken “the leap” with a guarantee of how it will turn out. What most successful business owners have in common is not the secret to success, but rather the willingness to fail – and fail spectacularly.
Over the course of 30 years, my husband & I have shot for the moon & shot ourselves in the foot instead. We’ve burned plans: changed our minds, our careers & our geographical locations.
Failure can be a profound catalyst for mid-course correction & reinvention.
You have to make mistakes to find out who you are & who you aren't.
Sometimes the model for personal development appears to run antithetical to the conventional model for success.
"Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one area where I belonged."
Over the years, we’ve bunked with friends & family for extended intervals, had a gap between health insurances at seemingly the most inopportune of times (if you knew the sum total of our medical bills it would send you in need of medical attention yourself), had an eviction notice posted to our door (due to a spectacular 11th hour finish we kept a roof over our heads) & even today, are in the middle of a lawsuit (jury’s still out).
We didn’t just risk looking like flakes. We did look like flakes. And at times, we were flakes.
And when you are someone like me who practically made a religion out of avoiding humiliation, this can be a hard pill to swallow.
Yet my legions of failures have been my greatest teachers.
Although failure taught me myriad lessons both practical & spiritual, here’s the one that changed how I operate in the world the most: Failure released me from the need for approval that had always governed me.
There is something wildly liberating about failure.
Life as I’d known it had been destroyed so completely so many times, that in a way I became free. Don’t misunderstand me I still enjoy approval, but it’s nothing compared to the satisfaction & freedom that came once I no longer needed approval.
(In other words, if you don't like me I respectfully do not care.)
The upside of failure is that when your identity is so shaken, you eventually discover the part of you that can never be shaken — empowering you to remember who you are even when circumstances would tempt you to believe otherwise.
I value the freedom of this shift in awareness as much as, if not more than, the manifestation of success. For me, the process itself is the outcome. The means is as good as the ends. The peace as good as the goal.
How ironic that the failures we think will ruin us are the very ones that make us into who we were meant to be.
Failure is the map to buried treasure. A way to discover strength & resilience & skills you never knew you had.
Uncoupling Fear from Failure
We all have rules about life — ideas that propagate inside our heads often learned in early childhood that create negative neuropathways (deeply-rutted brain grooves).
My brain’s spammy messages– judgments, really, of what I thought was acceptable & what wasn’t – convinced me of why I should be ashamed of failure. Until I discovered, to paraphrase Eleanor Roosevelt, that nothing can cause us to feel humiliation or shame without our consent.
When we embrace new beliefs, we can rewire our brains’ automatic response to failure, bust out of our self-scripted limitations & wildly alter our situations.
“…failure is loaded with heavy baggage — a stigma that failure is bad & a sign of weakness, ingrained in us early & hard. For all of our aphorisms about the upside of failure & even our most elegant contemplations of failure’s gift, we still carry deep-seated fear & paralyzing aversion to it, to our own detriment. We are so terrified to be wrong & so uncomfortable with the unknown that we often opt for safety & security over breaking new ground.”
Confidence doesn’t come from always being right but from not fearing to be wrong.
As Pixar cofounder Ed Catmull points out in his book Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration, “Mistakes aren’t a necessary evil. They aren’t evil at all. They are an inevitable consequence of doing something new (and, as such, should be seen as valuable).”
Truth be told, the fear of failure is far worse than actual failure. While it’s no fun to bomb, failure is survivable.
“Reality is always kinder than our thoughts.”
Most suffering is more mental than physical. When we question the stories we’ve learned about how we–or life—are bad when we fail, we can end our self-created suffering.
We always have options about how we interpret our circumstances. In other words, I could be served a summons in a lawsuit & be terrified, or I could be summoned & be amused.
Today, I laugh at things that used to terrify me.
We’re never stuck in situations. We’re only stuck by concepts & beliefs.
Once I realized I could question the beliefs that were distorting my vision, it radically transformed the way I thought about my failures. And had me question if they were really even "failures" at all.
Freedom from the attachment to ideas about success allows us to define it on our own terms, releasing the need for social validation & merit metrics.
"What looks like success isn’t always success — same goes for failure."
"Success is peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best you are capable of becoming."
John R. Wooden
For those who view success as a way to establish their superiority in a hierarchy, failure is a sentence & a label. A scarlet letter.
For those who believe that personal success is when you work in earnest to become your best, failure is motivating, informative input – a wakeup call. A badge of honor.
Failure is faithful. It keeps providing us with the same lesson until we learn it. (Sometimes I think I’m the all-time world champion in the can’t-take-a-hint department.)
The demoralization that results from years of struggling drives us to get honest about what is and isn’t working in our lives & figure out the reasons behind our failures. (Read: We finally get burnt out & can no longer do things The Old Way anymore.) And once we do, we’re struggling less & accomplishing more in ways we’d never expect.
This is how failure clears the path toward our best successes & prepares us with the skills we need to maintain our dreams once they’re realized.
Living Life Unleashed
Most of us (including me) prefer to operate within our abilities & comfort zones. Stepping outside of them risks failure, yet that’s where change, growth, discoveries, opportunities, innovations, & creative endeavors take place.
“In a fear-based, failure-averse culture, people will consciously or unconsciously avoid risk. They will seek instead to repeat something safe that’s been good enough in the past. Their work will be derivative, not innovative. But if you can foster a positive understanding of failure, the opposite will happen.”
Pixar cofounder Ed Catmul
We can sidestep all opportunities to avoid failure, only doing what we’re sure will impress—if we don’t mind creating a tomorrow that looks a lot like yesterday. Or we can let ourselves be awkward, uncomfortable, & unpolished from time to time in pursuit of our dreams.
"If you aren’t experiencing failure, then you are making a far worse mistake: You are being driven by the desire to avoid it."
Since success is often proportionate to risk, living incognito –“safely” below our potential– is tempting. But living our best life is a debt of honor we owe. Avoiding scary things does NOT diminish fear; diving headfirst into them does.
Case in point: The degree to which I’ve been unqualified for most things I’ve done in life is astounding. A certain ignorance of our own ineptitude can be a useful tool when starting stuff, so not to scare ourselves right out of doing it.
In my 20s, this is how I landed a job as a pastry chef on a Friday afternoon & taught myself how to make brioche & puff pastry over the weekend in time to fill the bakery case Monday morning. I didn’t exactly lie; I just told my story out of chronological order. (Kids, don’t try this at home.)
This is more confession than boast, but the truth is risks are more likely to pay off when we actually take them.
I notice that people who are smarter than me often think themselves into paralysis, finding reasons to abort their ideas as quickly as they conceive them.
That’s why I credit my naïveté for my moxie. Call me ignorant or just plain dumb, but I was naïve enough to think that the first project I could tackle before I was considered to be a writer by anyone, including myself, was to write a book.
This explains why when on a tour to promote Lifelong Looper: The Story of a Caddie Legend, I answered unhesitatingly “I have none” on live TV during a Comcast Sportsnet interview to the question from a 4-man panel about my writing credentials.
As a writer, I fail my way to success every day. Because as Ernest Hemingway so aptly— if not indelicately—put it (warning: profanity ahead), “The first draft of anything is shit.” And even with a final draft, one never knows. This post on failure may fail. Every time I push “publish” that’s a risk I take.
Everyone's scared. I get scared nearly every day. Passion can lead us to some frightening places. They say courage is fear that has said its prayers. I agree. So I pray & do the work. I keep going in the face of frequent failure, because in my experience persistence almost always trumps talent.
Why I Share my Personal Experiences with Failure
Because owning our failures openly, publicly without shame reaps connection. Because we dearly need to hear each other’s stories to inspire each other, in order to heal, in order to grow. So we know we’re not alone.
“The chief trick to making good mistakes is not to hide them.”
Because it doesn't matter what we do, write, knit, code, film, paint, sing, produce, sculpt, lead, love, raise, simmer, sell, teach, craft, desire, build or bake, we all risk a certain measure of failure in pursuit of our biggest dreams & best lives. We need rallying to fail often. And to fail bravely. To show up before we’re ready, before we’re perfect.
Author Glennon Melton expresses exactly what I want to say here (making me wish I said it myself): “This is about refusing to be ashamed of our humanity. The world is changed by scared people who JUST GO AHEAD AND SHOW UP SCARED & FULLY HUMAN instead of waiting to morph into some sort of superhero before they start living. World changers show up, with their insecurity looming & their knees shaking – long before anybody gives them permission to show up. Don’t wait for permission & don’t wait for perfection. Do what you need to do. Fail wildly & try again. Fail again & try again & again. Keep failing & trying ’till you die. All the magic and connection and excitement and LIFE are in the flailing and failing with other messy, beautiful, brave folks.”
People who take huge risks are not only unafraid to fail, but they also learn to celebrate stunning failure. (Seems to me like a great way to raise kids.)
“I think it’s tremendously important to develop a powerful relationship to failure. If you’re a coward & stopped by failure, there’s no way to develop. Making mistakes is the most valuable training there is. That’s why I teach my students to celebrate mistakes. Every time they make mistakes I say, ‘How fascinating’ stretch my arms into the air & smile.”
Benjamin Zander, Conductor of Boston Philharmonic
Life is a continual classroom. And something does not have to end well for it to have been a valuable experience.
Release the pain & shame of your past mistakes & embrace the rubble of failure as a doorway to new beginnings. Exchange beauty for ashes.
If you’ve “failed” in relationships, use what you’ve learned, & despite serial heartbreak, dare to love again. If you’ve “failed” in parenting, forgive yourself & integrate the insights you’ve gained to repair the breach. If you've interpreted chronic pain or illness as failure, make it your teacher not your jailor.
“Every adversity, every failure, every heartache carries with it the seed of an equal or greater benefit.”
In whatever physical, mental, emotional or financial state you find yourself in:
This is the time for leaping & trusting.
"After you jump, before you land is God. "
ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THAT CHASM ARE YOUR DESIRES.
This is the time for rallying ourselves to choose fulfilling our potential over the fear of failure. And living our best lives over the fear of what people think.
For taking our high-holy dreams off pause & into live action to become our truest, deepest, brightest selves.
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The Nuptial Journey
(Reflections on 30 years of marriage)
Laugh Lines are Sexy
How to Stop Saying Yes When You Mean No
The Dalai Palma
When Nature Pulls a Fast One
A Mulligan (Life's Second Chances)
The Kindness of a Stranger
Making Uncertainty an Ally
Lovin' the Town You're With
Being Part of Someone's First
THE STORY OF A
"An Amazing Life Story..."
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(Due to a technical failure – oh the irony, most of the likes & comments on this post were lost. My apologies. You know how much I value your insightful comments.)
It's Happy in Here (TM) (Series) | How to Be Happy: 22 Tips to Everyday Bliss by Cindy O'Krepki
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