Allegedly, it is life at its best when we are succeeding and life at its worse when we are failing. How do we define success and failure? How do we come to have such a strong attachment to success and a deep aversion to failure? How does our relationship to success and failure define our relationship to life?
What Is Failure?
We can easily understand failure as falling short of some desired expectation, while success can be viewed as attaining desired expectations. As children, we easily figured out that our parents' love, packaged as their approval, happened when we met their expectations. Meeting their requirements became our initial understanding of success, and succeeding meant being loved conditionally.
Such conditions ranged from feeding the dog, academic achievement, making a bed, cleaning our rooms or some form of athletic attainment. Thus, our desire to be loved became galvanized to succeeding to procure parental approval. We can say that such success led to at least some temporary belief that we were lovable. Failing becomes quickly taboo as it indicates a loss of love, initially the loss of parental love and gradually the loss of love for ourselves.
In spring of 2010, a CBS reporter interviewed Rahm Emanuel, who at that time was President Obama's chief of staff. The following reflects excerpts from that interview:
"What was your childhood like?" asked the interviewer.
"Well, the sign on the refrigerator door summoned up my childhood, which read, 'Failure is not an option,'" replied Mr. Emanuel.
"What about the schedule of your typical workweek?"
"My motto on Fridays is: There's only two days left to the workweek!" explained Mr. Emanuel with a note of pride.
"And your family, I understand you have children. What is family life like?"
"My kids and I swim in a pool from 5 a.m. to 5:30 a.m. every Tuesday and Thursday."
The above is not intended to offer a disparaging account of Mr. Emanuel's lifestyle, but rather to depict a typical orientation toward success and failure. What if one of the kitchen appliances in Mr. Emanuel's childhood home had displayed the inscription, "Perfectionism is not an option?" Might that have introduced a significantly different mandate for living? When failure is condemned, strivings toward success are commonly laced with perfectionism.
The Gifts of Failure
The "failure is not an option" paradigm will likely be unable to comprehend the potential gifts of failure. However, living by the canon, "perfectionism is not an option" might open us up to a larger view of failure, a perspective able to embrace the potential gifts of failing. Some of those benefits might look like the following:
• Experiencing failure has the potential of reducing arrogance. The inflationary tentacles of aggrandizement may lose some of their gusto.
• A new level of humility may be unearthed as failure brings us closer to our authentic limits.
• There is the likelihood of greater empathy and acceptance in response to the failings of others.
• Failure, more than success, typically has the power of having us pause, curious about how a failing came about and what might be learned.
• Making peace with failure can put us on good terms with taking risks, which can expand our lived experience.
• Carrying our failings lightly can diminish our fear of life, opening us to a richer emotional experience as we allow ourselves to be touched and moved.
• We are able to live more easily on life's terms as our failings inform us as to what is in and out of our control, and more accepting of the later.
• As we make peace with failure, there is more opportunity to dethrone perfectionism and gain more comfort with our humanity.
• Not attaining desired expectations becomes more of a forgivable act.
• The more peace we make with failure, the more success loses its power to bestow conditional love upon us. We can begin to awaken to unconditional self-love.
• Deepening an acceptance of failure has the potential of strengthening both a capacity to recognize when we need help and the ability to ask for it.
• We can pass on to our children the power of making peace with failure.
Not Getting So Stuck
When failure is held as simply unfortunate, our failings are usually riddled with shame, guilt and deep feelings of inadequacy. We get stuck in very negative energies. These punitive responses to failing are often a flawed attempt at securing future success. Making peace with failure can soften and possibly eliminate the blow of these self-diminishing assaults. When we make peace with failure -- that is, accepting its inevitability -- we make peace with life and with ourselves.