For his first four years, Albert Einstein didn’t speak. Einstein’s parents were concerned that he was mentally challenged. As a Nobel prize winner and a brilliant physicist, Einstein’s failures became celebrated achievements. Thomas Edison invented the lightbulb, but only after many failures. In his words, I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work. Walt Disney was fired by a newspaper editor who thought Disney lacked imagination and good ideas. Judging by the catalog of movies with Walt Disney’s name on them, I think it’s fair to say he overcame what was viewed as failure to find great success. The list goes on and on, and you can research for yourself the stories of people who overcame failure: Fred Astaire, Stephen King, Oprah Winfrey, Sydney Poitier, J.K. Rowling, Lucille Ball, and one of my favorites, Dr. Seuss. Failure is everywhere. Anywhere you find success, you can almost guarantee that failure has preceded it. Why, then, don’t we embrace failure?
It isn’t that I don’t understand that failing is okay. It isn’t that I don’t appreciate the value failure has if I want success to be the end result. It’s just that failure isn’t fun, isn’t pleasant, and can be downright painful. I’ve always avoided pain. What if I could change my thinking? I think I could change my life, even as an adult. In fact, in the book I’ve been writing, I offer one parenting tip that I think every parent should follow: Allow your elementary school child to fail. If your second grader forgets her homework, she’ll sit out at recess most likely redoing the assignment. There will probably be lots of tears and gnashing of teeth. You might even hear how it’s all your fault because you wouldn’t bring the homework to your child. Really, she won’t die from the experience, and there is a good chance that she will avoid bigger failures later on because of a few painful lessons early in life. **Parents of young children, this is like falling with a safety net. Let them learn from failure as youngsters!
Not only do most people not embrace failure, the view that a person who fails is weak or dumb seems to pervade our culture. Pressure to be perfect has caused teenagers, housewives, and executives to bring an end to life when they felt failure was unacceptable. Think of the difference it could make if we began to celebrate our failures as opportunities to find success; how would that look to you? On a small scale, I think of the child who discovers that sticking tweezers into an electrical outlet will cause lots of pain (a personal lesson here), and on a larger scale you might consider the success of heart transplants today that were preceded by many years of failures. If a project at work fails, you can look for people to blame or you can rethink it and make it better. When we look at it that way, failure is an obvious and acceptable predecessor of success. Sadly, we don’t usually teach this way of thinking to our children, and we don’t celebrate failures in the workplace. What if we rewarded failures as bringing someone one step closer to succeeding, rather than punishing someone by letting them know what a loser they are? Are you willing to give yourself permission to fail first? As with any lesson you want to teach to someone else, you must learn it yourself first.
I tried to quit smoking several times, and I failed several times. Each time I went back to smoking, I felt so ashamed of myself. One day, I quit smoking and never started smoking again. I succeeded! I can only tell another person what worked for me, though. My failure might or might not be the key to your success.
Failed recipes eventually find success as family favorites.
Failed target practice can lead to a bull’s eye.
A deuce on the golf course can become a prize-winning ace.
Failure begets success.
Sometimes, it does take making the wrong turn to lead to the right road. Bill Gates, who had some mighty big failures before he succeeded with Microsoft, is worth listening to: It’s fine to celebrate success but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure. School is starting this time of year. The pressure is on to be perfect. Why not try to teach a new lesson–that failure can lead to success? Whether the student is 8 or 80, today is a great day to learn that being perfect isn’t nearly as great as being perfectly willing to learn from a failure every now and then.