Embracing Failure, or You Can’t Do Anything You Set Your Mind To

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.

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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.

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Charity Singleton Craig

Charity Singleton Craig is a writer, author, and speaker, helping readers grow in their faith and experience true hope in the middle of life’s joys and sorrows. She is the author of My Year in Words: what I learned from choosing one word a week for one year and coauthor of On Being a Writer: 12 Simple Habits for a Writing Life That Lasts.


  • Pretending to Be Anonymous ,

    “Worst case scenario,” yes. I find it very helpful. It drains the power off it.

  • Donna Falcone ,

    Great post, Charity! Lots of wisdom. 20 year old you was brave!

    So many things have happened in my life that were never expected – there have been some pretty huge failures along the way! I’ve learned that it doesn’t matter what happens after it happens as much as I thought it would before it happened. That sure makes life easier!

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      Charity Singleton Craig ,

      You’re totally right, Donna. I have fretted so many times over major decisions that ended up not being so major in the ways I thought they would. I think we and our relationships are much more resilient than we even realize.

    • Pretending to Be Anonymous ,

      This is the second time in less than a week you’ve spoken into something I’m currently considering. The first was when you posted a link to Problogger podcast, “4 Questions to Ask Before Quitting….,” which I’ve now listened to twice. And now this post here. Are your reading my mind? 🙂 I think before quitting, it’s good to make a list of the fears that keep you from quitting, to ask the question, “What am I afraid will happen if I quit?” I think seeing the list as a whole will clarify things. Some fears are valid obstacles to be taken seriously. Most just need to be exposed as shadows, nothing much there. I am in the list-making stage at the moment.

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        Charity Singleton Craig ,

        What a great comment. I think that list of fears is really important – and both sides of it need to be acknowledged as you suggested. I also am of the mind that thinking through the “worst case scenario” also helps demystify quitting. What’s the worst thing that can happen if I quit? And if that happens, is it still worth quitting? Then, I work my way back from there, because rarely does the worst thing happen. Even so, at least I’m prepared and have thought it through. Thanks again for joining me in all these discussions!