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Personal "Failure" Is Just a Result

I'm reading a book by two teens called Do Hard Things. It's a book which represents a rejection of the low values and expectations the world at large has for teenagers. Their point is that just because you're aged 12-18, the belief you are incapable of taking on difficult challenges is nonsense. See, the idea of the "teenager" is actually a relatively new one, and the result of excesses of the Industrial Revolution. Before that, there were two categories: children and adults. They cite examples like George Washington, Clara Barton (who would later found the Red Cross), and David Farragut (who had his first ship command at age 12) as examples of teens or younger who did great things at that age. If you want to read more about what they're saying in that arena, check out the book or the web site. I'd like to focus on a point they make, which I've seen pointed out before by other performance coaches. That's the idea that personal failure is simply a result.

Inevitably, when we try to do things, sometimes we're going to fail. That's life. For instance, consider that if you fail to get a hit in baseball 65% of the time, you'd be considered one awesome hitter. Now simplifying things and taking out walks, sacrifices, and the like, that still means you fail almost twice as much as you succeed at this simple task. Only a rare few can maintain this kind of clip in Major League Baseball. And they would be considered success stories. So why are we so afraid of a personal failure? Some would say because there is more riding on our successes and failures. But that's not necessarily the case. For instance, a single swing of the bat can mean a sizable difference in the fortunes of certain individuals and teams. Just ask the Red Sox about this historic homerun. That little ball flying out of the park resulted in a change of fortune for two baseball teams. So why do we put so much emphasis on personal failures?

Often we treat failure like a disaster. We treat failure like an incurable disease. As a result, we become afraid to try something new. We hesitate to attempt something great. We may be miserable where we are, but at least we understand and know where we are. Failure brings about an unknown. For that matter, so does success. So we simply don't try. We don't push ourselves, or at least we don't do so with any sort of intensity and passion. And then, years later we wonder why we haven't gone a lot further than where we find ourselves.

Instead of treating personal failure like a disaster, we need to treat it simply as a result, like 5 or 7, or blue. In the effort of trying, we should gain or improve or grow. For instance, the first time I stepped up to the plate, I made about 11 or 12 bad swings out of 15. The good swings were not due to any skill. I simply didn't know how to swing the bat. But I got up there and tried. That's what you did in Little League. My dad promptly took me to a batting cage a few times and within a couple of weeks I had a really decent swing. I learned from my mistakes. I learned how to choke up to get better control of the bat. I learned how to step properly to shift my hips and put power into my swing. I learned how to make the swing itself relatively short and compact, so that I could rip it through the strike zone quickly. As a result, there wasn't a pitcher in our league I couldn't the ball in play against and I ended up hitting lead-off because I could either take the walk (I developed my eye, too) or slap hit a single and then proceed to steal second and third, meaning I came home for a run most times I got up to bat. But that only came after many, many failures to simply make contact with the ball, much less make good contact. Over the next three years I worked on my swing a lot. At the end of my short baseball career, I left with my swing being the best part of my game. Far better than my fielding and throwing and my speed, which started out as my greatest strengths. Over the course of that time I learned how to lengthen my swing and my step to generate even more power. I was slid from lead-off to clean-up and went from the guy who set up the rest of the hitters in the line-up to the one who hit them home. But all of that came with a lot of failures. Learning to hit someone who threw sidearm. Learning to lay off the high heat. Learning to read a breaking ball coming in. Learning how to soften up on a bunt. That last one was one of the hardest things to learn. I can't tell you how many times I pushed the ball and failed to get the bunt down before I felt comfortable laying a bunt down in a real game. Each time was a failure. But it wasn't a disaster.

And so it needs to be this way in our own goals and achievements. Failure is a result. What did we learn from the process? What skills did we develop? Did we grow? Can we do better next time? This is how our minds should be focused when it comes to personal failure. If we do it this way, we position ourselves for a better result the next challenge we take on. And we're not afraid to take on that challenge. After all, we know that whatever the result, we'll grow from it. And that changes our attitude about the challenge. Now we want to tackle it to get better. It may be hard and the result may be failure, but that's just a result. What we gain will be worth it. We just have to convince ourselves that failure is a result and not a disaster.

K. Brian Kelley - Databases, Infrastructure, and Security

IT Security, MySQL, Perl, SQL Server, and Windows technologies.


Posted by jcrawf02 on 2 March 2010

Oh, had I but read this some years ago...

I'm going to write failure=blue on a piece of paper and tack it to my cubicle wall.

Posted by Jason Brimhall on 2 March 2010

Thanks.  This is something I try to remember.  What can be gained from failure?  IF you don't try then you have truly failed, but if you at least try, you can take something from it and grow.

Posted by John Magnabosco on 3 March 2010

Thanks for blogging on this topic. It is something that we need to be reminded often. I am also reading a book on a similar topic called "Failing Forward" by John Maxwell.

jcrawf02: An alternative note on your cubicle wall could be:

(Failure + Learn + Try Again) = (Success * Experience)

Posted by Steve Jones on 3 March 2010

Ahhh, a baseball blog. I love that.

Actually this relates to a recent post on attitude I saw (sqlblog.com/.../a-turning-point.aspx). The way you deal with failure matters. I think failure should hurt, but it needn't be crushing. You can learn from it, learn from mistakes, use the desire to do better to improve the next time.

However you can't just ignore a failing. I think we find salesman do this, which makes them good at selling, but they also develop a callousness I dislike and wouldn't want.

Posted by rose.waters on 3 March 2010

I'm going to save this one !

Posted by K. Brian Kelley on 3 March 2010

Steve, very true. Every time I struck out until I learned how to make good contact was painful. As I learned to expand my stride and increase my power, that hole I developed and had to work out of my swing was painful as well, when I would either tip the ball or whiff entirely. The pain of the failure was there. I just didn't let it stop me from trying again.

Posted by Anonymous on 3 March 2010

I had a really bad habit of trying to jump into the middle of something I didn't know very well,

Posted by AjarnMark on 4 March 2010

Brian, my belief is that the reason we (improperly) put so much emphasis on personal failures is that that is the approach that we learned in school.  In many of the school systems in our country, they keep track of your failures and failure is bad.  If you continually fail at a new subject or topic in school, over and over, and then finally "get it" and succeed, too often the grade you receive is the average of all those failures rather than the recognition that you succeeded and have now learned the lesson as well as the person who got it on the first try, and so we subconsciously have programmed ourselves that new is risky and failure is bad.

In the real world, we are not graded on an average of our attempts, but on the most recent outcome.  Sure, there is reputation like customer server to be considered which has some averaging, but once you learn the lesson, succeed and continue to perform, then even that goes up rapidly.

And I, too, would recommend John Maxwell's Failing Forward to people to read.

Posted by chris.turner on 9 March 2010

Baseball...that's what we call rounders isn't it? Now, if I could only find an online translation facility to turn it into cricket-speak...

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