Fail Forward

All too often we let our mistakes define us. Define who we are and what we come to know about ourselves. Instead of letting go of mistakes, we hold onto them tighter, letting them penetrate deeper…affecting us at our core.

Mistakes can make us question our own identity and worth, and can threaten our confidence and self-esteem.

But why?

Why do we allow a mistake these grave personal consequences? Isn’t the mistake itself enough? Why are humans so programed to dwell on mistakes; feeding them thought, attention, emotion, and action? Why not just let them go; move on, move forward…

In part, it may be because it’s easier to pick up on what’s wrong, what needs fixing, rather than pay attention to the positives. It may also be because we live in a society that tends to be very perfectionistic in nature; driven to outperform, outlearn, and out-earn others. An incessant quest to make and leave a legacy…

Or, it may simply be the result of not knowing how to process mistakes any differently; how to think through a problem, rather than accepting defeat as confirmation of personal failure.

Let’s consider athletes. Athlete’s have no time to dwell. They know that failure is part and parcel of the game. It’s what fuels the fire; sparks the motivation to persist forward. To fail forward…

I’m fortunate. I learn this daily from my high school athletes. They pick themselves up and continue, even in the face of physical and emotional distress. Mistakes, in their eyes, hold insight, new knowledge, and motivation to play on, overcome, face new challenges… continue forward.

Mistakes can be this for us too, if we choose to explore; to ask why and what next instead of accepting defeat. A mistake can be a signal for growth and new learning. An opportunity to pause and reflect on what could have been done differently. An opportunity to ask questions, to network, to come back even stronger…

“The only failure is not trying. Failure is giving up. Of course, we all fall down at some point in life. There’s no way to grow with out making mistakes. And, there’s no way to have the right formula the first time.

It’s the discomfort of failure that brings us to something new—something better ahead.”

- Dr. Wellman

So, how do we get here?

Well, first, it’s time to readjust the lens. Yes, mistakes are upsetting, challenging, threatening, and discomforting. In some cases they are absolutely terrible and hard to come back from.

Yet, even in the worst cases, the worst mistakes, we must learn to evaluate more than the mistake itself.

We must zoom-out and grapple with the larger context at play: the people, the place, the time, the emotions, the actions, the consequences…

One must adjust the frame, expand the frame, to see the entire picture. That’s where learning is found and growth lies; that’s where one gains clarity in the path forward.

Failure can set you back. But only if you let it. It can also take you forward. But only if you let it.