What is failure? What does it mean to you?


Your answer to that question reveals more about how you think about yourself, and others than you might realise.

In the past, I had understood ‘failure’ in an exam, or test, to mean not getting a high enough grade. With regards to my health, and fitness, I used to think failure was not exercising regularly, and having lots of energy. With my mental state, I used to think of failure, as not being always peaceful, composed, relaxed, and mentally neutral.

Most importantly, I used to think that failure meant that I wasn’t good enough, strong enough, disciplined enough, or skilled enough to be able to reach a level of success, or accomplishment that would make me ‘happy’.

I hadn’t ‘failed’ or ‘succeeded’ in any significantly different manner than any other kid at the time. I was smart, regularly achieving top grades in my classes, and being in the top 3 students academically in each of my classes. I was physically active, always aiming for at least 30 minutes of exercise each morning, and doing at least an hour of sports every other day. I ate a balanced diet, and had a physically fit body. But I wasn’t as good as the kids who were better than me. There was always someone who was just a little bit smarter, a little bit faster, a little bit stronger, had more endurance than me, or appeared to always succeed where I would ‘fail’.

Fixed MindsetI didn’t know it at the time, but I was stuck in a ‘fixed’ mindset. Because of the level of ‘relative’ success that I accomplished, I was regularly congratulated, and praised for my ‘intelligence’, or ‘natural talent’, and so I thought that clearly I had to be smart. That naturally, I’m gifted, and that my ‘limits’ were in place, but that I had to do everything I could do be as good as I could. Ironically, in spite of being told how smart, and intelligent I was, I didn’t ever feel it inside. Things just seemed easy for me, and instead of going deeper into the subjects, or the disciplines that I found easy and effortless to study, I kept wanting to push myself further, to the edges of my limits. I wanted to get to that point where I could grow, and learn more, and develop further.

Enter Farhan at 16. As an accomplished ‘A’ Grade GCSE student, with everything going well for me, I switched to the IB Programme, instead of A’ Levels. Eager for a challenge, and drawn by a curious desire to study French, as well as focus on the Sciences and Maths subjects that I would need to follow my chosen passion of ‘technology’. (Chosen more by the people around me, than myself might I add). For once, I found myself at the bottom of the class. It didn’t help, that I transferred into the IB Classes a month into the term, after starting A’ Levels, and realising I wouldn’t be able to study the combination of subjects that I really wanted to. I was overworked, under prepared, and had to work as hard as I ever had, to just keep my head above water.

If I had thought I was smart before, now I was really failing. I was the dumbest kid in most of my classes. And in some of those classes, that was being kind. Then at University, if I couldn’t have felt dumb at the IB Level, I felt even dumber. Part of my challenge was that all the people I was studying with had a much deeper curiosity and interest in the subjects that we were studying. They had a much deeper and keener interest in what we studied. I realise now, that my real passions, and interest weren’t in pure Computer Science, and that really I did enjoy Business, and Psychology more than just the technical aspects of what makes a machine work. But most importantly, I was flunking big time. From being one of the proverbial ‘smart’ kids, I was now a bonafide dumb ass. I couldn’t figure the stuff out, even if I spent hours and hours looking at it, trying to make sense of it all. Of course I was too proud to ask anyone else for help, and even when I did, half the time it didn’t make any sense, and I still couldn’t understand, or make sense of it.

Growth MindsetWhat I realise now, many years later, after much reflection, and having learnt about the distinction between the fixed mindset and the growth mindset, was that I was deeply entrenched at the time in a ‘fixed’ mindset. I saw myself as being of ‘fixed’ ability. Of being super smart and intelligent, and that I had a limited ability to grow, and become smarter. Heck, when I was younger, I felt so smart, I didn’t think anyone could be as smart as me, and then over time, as I stopped studying, trying, and learning, and growing, and started being surrounded by people more competent, more able, and more intelligent than me, I realised that I was actually quite dumb. Being the proud ‘smart’ person though, it was unbearable, failing to understand or comprehend high level programming concepts, getting numb at the theoretical principles in Computer Science, whilst having to implement obscure, conceptual programs, that appeared to have little or no basis in any practical ‘human’ applications of the knowledge. My mind just couldn’t get itself around the fact that clearly I wasn’t smart, I was dumb. Fortunately, I was able to hide behind that failure well. Because of course, when you fail from high enough up, it doesn’t look so bad. I graduated from University, got an Honours degree, and managed to leverage my language skills to land up in a high paying job in Switzerland, straight out of University. Result! Or so I thought.

But I couldn’t have been more miserable, or unhappy. I had stopped ‘studying’ which meant learning, or growing. I was working a job that I didn’t really have any significant passion or challenge from. I was increasing in weight, exercising next to nothing, and getting by on pretty much will power alone. Living alone, even though it was in a spacious 3 bedroom apartment, with views from the car park of the Jura mountains. I worked in Lausanne, sitting on the borders of Lake Geneva, with views of the Evian mountains. But for all intents and purposes, I was miserable, lonely, depressed, and morbidly obese, and getting ever more fatter. Whilst I had all the ‘material’ trappings of success, I didn’t feel like a successful person. Unless I spoke with friends and family, and then of course, I had to sell them on my ‘success’ and the ‘big life’, and all the perceptions of success that I could leverage, to make it sound like everything was perfect, and that life was great.

Your failures do not define youBut I had failed. I had failed big time. I didn’t really love my work. The passion for learning was gone. There was no growth. Everything was stagnating, and eventually, it all came undone, when I tried too hard, to try to make a difference, to matter again. When I tried pushing the envelope at work, to take on more responsibility than my role had required of me, to try to be more helpful, than I needed to be. It turns out that German line managers prefer it if you do what your job is, not more, not less. A real shocker for me at the time, as I had been used to working in London, where as a temp, people used to appreciate me doing more not less. I had failed to learn about the cultural differences, of working in London, and Switzerland.

Fortunately, fast forward ten years, and I suddenly realise that actually I wasn’t a complete failure. I hadn’t reached my intellectual peak at 16, and I really wasn’t as smart, or as skilled as I could ever be. Having over time, forced myself to continue to try to grow, and develop into the person that I needed to become to succeed, I realised that actually, there are no limits to what we can become. With the right coaching, mentoring, teaching, and mindset, we can learn anything. We can become the best in any field, or any discipline, given enough practice, and training.

All of a sudden, every failure had become a stumbling block to growth. Whilst during the experience, of it, I had thought I had limited potential, that I was naturally at the end of my ability to grow and develop, I had kept trying, and gradually I had started to break through.

Failure is only the opportunity to begin again only this time more wiselyYou see, super successful people ‘fail’ all the time. They fall down. They tumble. They make mistakes. They screw up. The difference is, they do it fast, frequently, and often. They ‘label’ failure as part of their growth. As part of their learning. They reflect on the experience, to learn from it, take what learnings they can, and then move on, letting go of their attachment to what happened, and any ‘negatives’ that don’t help or serve them in their growth.

Now that I understand that we are only as smart as our training, our studying, our coaching, or our mentoring, I embrace growth. Which in the past, I thought was failure. You see, growth can only occur, when you hit a limit. When you reach a boundary of yourself. When you come to the edge of your existing knowledge and experience, and experience something that you don’t know, that you don’t understand, that you couldn’t predict, and that you just couldn’t have considered or known was going to happen.

Failure means you’re growing. If you choose to learn from the experience, and make a change. Do something differently as a consequence of your experience. Most importantly, you can only grow, if you don’t attach your identity, or competence to your result. If you see ‘failure’ for what it truly is. Learning. Feedback. A result. Nothing more, nothing less.

I invite you to consider the possibility that perhaps there are no limits to your intelligence, competence, abilities, or skills.

With the best coach in the world, you would be guaranteed to succeed. If you don’t know how, or you don’t even think it’s possible, I invite you to consider what if it is possible? Just yesterday I learnt of a man, who completed the London Marathon at the age of 101 in 2011.

[youtube http://youtu.be/gCY0Xx92YvQ]

It put me to shame, and at the same time, made me realise, I really have a lot to learn. I just need to find solutions, answers, and most importantly, I need to start asking the right questions.

So the next time you have a less than optimal result or an experience, don’t ask yourself why did I fail? Instead ask yourself what did I learn? and how can I grow from this experience?

Failure is an event not a person - Zig Ziglar

I’d love to hear your thoughts on growth, learning, and your perceptions of failure in the comments below.

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3 Comments to “Understanding Failure”

  1. Craig says:

    I appreciate your honestly. Putting myself in a box, I struggle with perfectionism, a personality trait that many have in this fast paced world. I am beginning to see that failure is a large part of perfectionism, whether in the for of procrastination since I don’t want to fail, so I just will not start, or blaming others for failure or making the issue more complex to make sure you prevent failure, make it perfect. I have research a bit more on the fixed mindset, growth mindset and I think we all would like to grow, the question is more, what is holding us back from the change? In most changes there are often stages like these: awareness, validation, acceptance, challenge. The thing I find hard is getting across the gap between fixed mindset/growth mindset for example. What are the baby steps???

  2. Nivedha says:

    I have struggled with developing a ‘growth’ mindset for a long time now.

    Having gone through elementary school, highschool, IB, and now my second year of University obsessively trying to be known as a smart kid, I feel entirely depleted and dispassionate about everything. Fear of failure and gauging my success relative to other people are the two main reasons for this.

    I just want to grow without being expected to produce good results every time I try to do something. I want to be okay with failing a midterm or not winning a club election, be able to move on without branding the moment as an embarrassing one in my memory so that whenever I look back on it, I don’t feel bad about myself.

    • @Nivedha, one of the simplest ways to shift mindset is to focus on your activities, and not your outcomes..
      Give it your all in each moment, and cultivate the best habits you can for success. But focus on your effort. Hold yourself accountable to your effort, and don’t judge yourself on your results, or outcome..

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