Willingness to Fail

“Who would like to tell us about their idea of a successful person?  Volunteers?”  The speaker looked out over the crowd of newly admitted Phi Kappa Phi members.  I was there to watch JP’s admission ceremony and we both turned to each other with the face that said “good luck lady.”  But we forgot we were in a room with high-achievers and nervous hands started to raise around the room.

One kid described his dad, a self-made businessman.  A few others described influential professors at UT.  Another spoke about a prominent researcher in his field.  The speaker then summarized their descriptions with a few words she clearly had selected prior to even walking in the room that day, but then she said something that caught my ear.

“Failure is our greatest success.”

I listened to her describe Thomas Edison’s attempts to create the light bulb – all of the times he’d failed before he finally made the light bulb work.  Her conclusion was that all of his prior failures made him successful.  But I would describe it slightly differently…

The willingness to fail is our greatest success. 

It’s not just failure that makes a person successful.  It’s being willing to fail in the process of reaching the ultimate goal.  It’s failing once, picking yourself up, dusting yourself off, and starting again knowing at every second that failure might still be waiting right around the corner.

And that doesn’t just apply to scientists or academics.  I remember learning new stunts in cheerleading and failure in stunts is pretty darned scary – it usually means quite a few bruises and sprains, and sometimes can mean concussions or more.  I remember the 1-2-3-up…and then instantly down into a jumbled mess on the floor.  But I also remember the way my body felt when I moved the wrong way; one hand tilted ever so slightly forward while the other was raised just a little too low.  And when we finally got it right, my body remembered how it felt and every time after that I let my muscles tap into that memory to hit the stunt again, and again, and again.

Nobody really wants to fall.  Nobody really wants to fail.  But being willing to have that result, being willing to fail and to learn from that failure, leads to true and lasting success in more ways than one.  Sometimes the wrong answer is actually the better one – Columbus set out to find the East Indies and instead landed in what is now the United States.  The discoveries of certain now commonly used medicines were often “mistakes,” not the intended results.

The willingness to fail is our greatest success.


4 thoughts on “Willingness to Fail

  1. I agree, very encouraging words. Sometimes it is difficult to forgive ourselves for failing and accept our failures as golden lessons. Perhaps, this is what life is truly all about – finding our greatness, our talents which we are able to share with others.

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