THE BLOG
08/25/2007 03:00 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Succeeding at Failure

One of my favorite things to do in life is to isolate a personal failure, obsess about it, publicly confess to it, embrace it, and then find some sort of scientific evidence to prove that it wasn't actually my fault after all. If I'm feeling particularly insecure, I'll even try to make the case that the failure in question is actually a good thing -- thereby making it a success by default. But that latter flourish is just icing on the cake and usually, when I'm exposing one of these failures that isn't my fault, I'm lucky if I get to the cake part, let alone to the icing.

Self-help books and daytime television psychologists refer to this as "denial of responsibility" but I call it the "personal responsibility reduction referendum" -- a by-law of the larger and more comprehensive "freedom of failure act" that I drafted back in elementary school as a way to accept and reframe my unpopularity and lack of physical coordination as it pertained to gym (my theory at the time assumed a connection between the two: that is, the less good I was at gym, the less popular I became with my peers -- which was a good thing, since I didn't want to be friends with kids who were good in gym anyway). According to a clinical psychologist at the University of Kansas who appeared at the top of my hasty Google search for "making excuses," "extenuating circumstances" is the most common reason deniers of responsibility give for their failures.

Which doesn't surprise me.

What does surprise me, though, is the fact that nobody except me seems to want to take credit for their failures -- "own them" -- the way I do before passing them off as someone else's fault.

Why is that? Why don't we wear our failures as badges of honor the way we do our successes? Why don't we run around bragging and blogging about how hard we've worked and how much we've sacrificed for nothing in return? Why don't we see that failures take just as much hard work and energy and sacrifice and commitment as successes do -- and even more so, because once we fail we have to spend an equal or greater amount of energy "cleaning up" and spinning our sad sorry tale of failure into something positive.

Which it is.

Unless you're a denier of responsibility that wants to make excuses and blame everything on extenuating circumstances.

But not me.

I'm proud of my mistakes and shortcomings, my flaws and resultant disappointments. I have a heart-bursting patriotism when I -- a true celebrator of failure -- pledge allegiance to the little white flag of surrender. Nothing could be more American than good old-fashioned failure and the wide-eyed but misplaced optimism that led to it. And yet, clearly I'm in the minority when it comes to this position. For some reason, the only thing worse than failure itself is accepting failure. Which to me seems like the greatest failure of all.

There's a whole special field of study dedicated to how both deniers of responsibility and celebrators of failure explain ourselves. "Attribution theory" claims that who we attribute our past successes and failures to makes a big difference in our future potential for success or failure: that is, if we blame "external" reasons (someone else), we feel like we're not in control of our destiny and maybe shouldn't even bother trying. Conversely, if we blame "internal" reasons (ourselves) we feel our hard work will eventually pay off. It's a little complicated and a little confusing and at the end of the day I'm just glad I don't need to consult an attribution theory therapist to know where to lay the blame for my failures since I've already laid the blame on me!

At the risk of being even more of a buzz-killer than I already am with all this failure talk, even the human brain -- ever the secret pessimist --reacts more strongly to negative events than it does to positive ones. Syndicated talk radio hosts call this the "negativity bias" but I call it "involuntary pessimistic intrusion disorder" (IPID). In case you haven't quite connected all the dots here, the fact that our brains are predisposed to focusing on negativity proves that my somewhat odd obsession with failure is not my fault. What is my fault is the compulsion to toot my horn about all the things that have gone wrong during the course of my life when I should probably keep quiet. Not everyone has been as fortunate as me.

Like all sorts of behavioral research, handling failure breaks down along gender lines. Apparently men and women blame "extenuating circumstances" with equal frequency, which surprises me since I've almost never heard a woman start a sentence with something other than, "I know it's my fault but --". Which is why it doesn't surprise me that women outdo men in the long-winded explanation of failure department.

Clearly I'm guilty of being long-winded about failure, but I wouldn't exactly call what I've been doing all my life "making excuses." I've been working on something much bigger and much bolder - I've been creating a whole new way to comprehend and metabolize human failure -- an "alternate cognitive orientation theory" (ACOT), if you will --in the hopes that one day my vision will be realized and my dream will come true:

That failure will be seen as a good thing instead of a bad thing.

Which seems like the best kind of failure of all.