I remember when I was 21 and had the world by the tail and nothing was impossible for me.
I had lived enough of life to know that things don’t always go as planned, but mostly that applied to other people. Except for a few minor setbacks — getting passed over for the cheerleading squad, having my bid for student body president quashed by the class clown, and being cut from the volleyball team when I was a senior — my life had been successful. Even these small obstacles were not for lack of trying; I could have done all of those things if given the chance. You can do anything you set your mind to, people had told me. And I believed them.
When I was 21 and spending my second summer working in Maine, something changed. The previous year, I had had a rocky experience serving in an outreach program to tourists sponsored by several local churches in the beach towns along the southern coast of Maine. One teammate had made things difficult for the rest of us, but mostly, I struggled from homesickness. I stuck it out though, because that’s what I always did. When the pastors invited me back the following summer to lead the ministry, I couldn’t say no.
But this second summer had even more challenges. True, there were no more difficult teammates. In fact, there were no teammates at all. Just me. And the role they hoped I would play was different than I expected. Still, I wanted to make it work, so I set myself to the task, organizing and recruiting and reaching out. But it wasn’t working. I wasn’t working. In fact, after a few weeks, I didn’t even want it to work out. I was done. So I quit.
I often look back at that pivotal moment as the turning point in my understanding of success and failure. While it was true that I had enough smarts and talent to do a lot of different things, I finally realized that I couldn’t do them all. When I became an adult — and even before that — I had to pick and choose what I was going to do. And that mantra that you can do anything you set your mind to meant that I had to actually be willing to set my mind to something. When I was no longer willing to do that, then chances are I wouldn’t be successful.
The real revelation for me was seeing what happened after failure: a new plan, a new opportunity, a new desire that I actually did want to set my mind to. Failure helped clarify what I wanted to do, and after I picked myself up off the floor, I went and did it.
“A lot of people still think of failure as a sign of personal incompetence and try to avoid it at all cost,” said Andrew Filev, CEO and founder of Wrike, a software firm in Mountain View, California. “But when you view building a business [or a ministry or a writing career or a life, even] as a series of experiments, you start to see failure as an inevitable step in the process.”
In the years since that first major “experiment,” I’ve also reconsidered how God uses our missteps and let downs and weaknesses to form a life of growth and service and love. Of course the word failure can also mean a moral failure, when we don’t just miss a deadline or fall short of expectations but actually hurt someone or compromise our integrity. But even then, failure isn’t only an end but also a beginning. It’s an opportunity to accept what we’ve done, to make amends, to be forgiven and given another chance.
My 21-year-old self needed to learn that failure isn’t the end, and that sometimes, quitting is the best thing a person can do. “A lot of people are discouraged from quitting even when they should because they’re worried about ending on a sour note,” say the authors of “The Magical Benefits of the ‘Quitter’s Mindset’” on First Round Review. But how we see our past failures won’t always feel so desperate.
“The way you tell the story of this experience will no doubt change over time, and you can decide proactively to change it. It doesn’t have to be a story of failure or missed opportunity. It can be about where you were at that stage of your career. What your personal best was given your education and experience. Chances are in 10 years, you’ll have a great deal of empathy for yourself and what you were capable of doing back then.”
Of course, nine moves in nine years after college later helped me learn that sometimes we also need to stay in a hard situation. That doesn’t mean we never fail. It simply means we face our failure by remaining on to fix it. I learned that the hard way, too, but that’s a story for another day.
What have you learned about failure that helps you live today?
Photo by Tom Butler via Unsplash.