Maybe We Don't Have to Reframe All Our Failures Positively

Photo by Nicholas Bui.

A friend of mine, a filmmaker named Jason Goode, made a very open, honest post about his experiences with failure on Facebook recently that has stuck with me.

He shared really transparently about the experience of going "all in" on big dreams and how, when they failed (which has been most of them), it's not always the inspirational, learning experience people describe in TED Talks:

I have a tendency to go *all in* on big dreams. I’ve always bought into the idea that if I had a knack for something, worked hard and fully committed, I’d be able to achieve what I was aiming for. I never wanted my story to be about the guy who didn’t go for it. Because of this, I’ve risked it big… a lot of times.

But what this means, practically speaking, is my life is marred with spectacular failures. With the exception of a couple of successes, when I’ve dreamed big and really went for it, I’ve mostly failed.

And big failures suck. People talk about failure as a learning opportunity or a moment for growth. Maybe they are for some people. (I’ve found that most of the people who say that, only say it in hindsight after they’ve succeeded on a subsequent attempt.)

Personally, I usually feel a sense of embarrassment for my presumptuousness. Sometimes anger at my arrogance. I rarely look back on my big failures with much more than a sense of disappointment and regret.

(He goes on to discuss some more personal specifics that I won't share here.)

I have grown to appreciate more and more when people talk about failure like this. I am tired of the victory narratives where people only discuss the failures as paving stones along a path to ultimate success. This is, of course, sometimes the case. Almost every success is reached through a yellow brick road of disappointment, falling down, and getting up and trying again. That is how success works.

But does every failure have to be part of a bigger narrative of victory?

The ultimate message behind those narratives gets dicey fast: perseverance WILL lead to success in the end; a final victory makes the work worthwhile; never taking no for an answer; keep trying and you'll "show them", and so on.

Maybe sometimes a failure is just a failure. Sometimes the "no" is final. Sometimes persevering transitions from being laudable to foolish or even damaging. Sometimes our best efforts are in vain and we must ultimately accept reality.

Of course (of course), there is always something to learn and the only real failure is failing to try and blah blah blah, learn and grow, blah blah.

But it still just plain sucks when it's happening, and that's okay too. With distance, eventually, we can celebrate the fact that we tried AND the fact that we let go when that was the right choice. We can appreciate the inspiration, the hope that led us to make an effort in the first place, even if it didn't lead anywhere.

Failing is still (almost always) a good thing because trying is (almost always) a good thing. And trying leads to failure. This doesn't mean we need to wrap up our failure stories with a victory at the end, pretend they were something else, or ignore the rough feelings that go along with them.

I will leave this thought on the wonderful Garfunkel and Oates song "You're a Loser" that makes me tear up every single time I hear it.

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