Why failing is good for your personal development

If you've never failed at anything in your entire life, this post is not for you. And for the record, I assume you must live in a bubble and be incredibly boring and we would never be friends because perfect and interesting are mutually exclusive concepts in my world.

That's not to say that I think I'm a failure. There are some things that I do pretty well: corny puns, rearranging furniture, finding grammar mistakes in newspapers. My dog literally thinks I'm the most amazing person on Earth. But there are thousands of things that I do terribly: anything that requires hand-eye coordination, selecting gifts, remembering to RSVP, carrying a tune, cooking chicken breast. Among others that I could spend hours listing here.

I've been thinking a lot lately about shortcomings and failure, and reflecting on the lengths I personally (and we collectively as a culture) go to correct or avoid them. From a very young age, we're taught what's expected, and over time we unconsciously begin to do two things:

  1. Strive to overcome shortcomings
  2. Avoid failing at all costs

There's something inherently wrong with both of these tendencies. An innate drive to change ourselves to meet some false vision of perfection leads us away from who we truly are as human beings, and what we're really meant to do for the world with our unique talents. A fear of failure holds us back from experiences and lessons that are necessary to learn, grow and expand our value to others.

Rather than making us collectively better human beings, striving for 'perfection' and fearing failure causes us to become versions of ourselves based on false standards that might not be quite right for who we are as people. My girl Eleanor Roosevelt said it best:

"When you adopt the standards and the values of someone else, you surrender your own integrity. You become, to the extent of your surrender, less of a human being."

How often have you heard the tale of the straight A student who followed the path of achievement until they morphed into a miserable investment banker yearning to own a food truck? Or the one about the young woman who forgets to relish the amazing, independent life she's built because of an intense loneliness driven by a false life timeline that dictates expiration dates for brides and mothers?

The pressure to achieve other people's vision of perfection can be overwhelming, and the fear of failure can paralyze us. It doesn't matter what you do, where you live, who your partner or friends are, or what your version of perfection and failure looks like. We all experience this and have to get past it in order to be better people and more value to the world.

Why Falling Short and Failing Is Good For You

A reader (hi, Cindy!) recently helped me think about this from a fresh perspective. After reading one of my posts, she emailed me to say that she was unsubscribing because she was offended by what I wrote. I was stunned. After exchanging a few emails with Cindy to better understand her perspective, I realized how badly I failed: in her explanation, Cindy told me that she loved to read this blog and often printed the posts to reread. Like many people, she'd grown weary of the negativity in American politics and exhausted by the constant commentary. Finding that tone on a blog she'd grown to trust to provide a positive and productive perspective was incredibly disappointing.

For me, realizing that I made at least one reader feel marginalized and negatively impacted their day was a much-needed wakeup call. I'd forgotten something I learned from one of my longtime favorite authors E.B. White, who famously said that the purpose of writing is "to lift people up, not lower them down."

Failing in this example taught me that I had an opportunity to better serve my readers and needed to be more thoughtful about the purpose and intent of my messages. The lesson Cindy helped teach me that day also made me consider where I needed to be more thoughtful about the value I was delivering in other roles in my life, including as a sister, daughter, wife, friend, colleague, manager and consultant. 

Beauty, prestige, popularity, money, and power are some examples of how our culture defines perfection and success. If you struggle to resist those powerful cultural forces, you're not alone. In fact, I think we'd be hard pressed to find someone who doesn't have that same struggle. I personally believe the fear and insecurities driven by those false ideals are the reason why we as individuals become stagnant, and why our society is collectively anxious, exhausted, lonely and obsessed with efficiency, productivity and instant gratification.

The good news? There's a cure! And it's easy, but requires that you actively recognize and resist those external influences, and take steps to consciously focus on what truly matters to free yourself up to fall short, fail and feel fine about it (otherwise known as "growing"). To get you started, here's a list of life truths that I find particularly inspiring when I start to get sucked into the comparison trap:

#1 You are the only person on Earth who truly understands who you are, and who you are becoming

People love to tell you what you should or should not do, how you're holding yourself back, what you should value or what should or should not be important to you. They probably have good intentions and presume to know you, but are really just projecting their own standards onto you. Learn to ignore them, and stay focused on what you truly value and know to be right.

#2 Prestige or money should never be your motivation for anything

Instead, understand who you serve and the value you provide in your efforts and define your success around that concept. Failure, at its essence, is when you do not serve others in the way you've intended, or do not provide value to others in what you're doing. Prestige, money and other rewards may come if you are exceptionally good a delivering value or serving others but it cannot alone motivate you to become successful. Focus instead on the things you are doing every day and how those things are helping the world.

#3 If you're not failing regularly, you're not growing

It's that whole 'a ship is safe in the harbor, but built to go out to sea' cliché, I know, but it's true. Playing it comfortable and safe got nobody anywhere. If you think back on your life and career, I bet it's the times that were the hardest where you were forced to take stock of yourself and your life that helped you to grow and made you who you are today.

#4 Make balance a priority in your life

I don't know why this is, but we tend to brag about how busy we are, how little sleep we get, how crazed our lives are, how early we got to the office or how late we stayed. This is inherently ridiculous, and I've started to realize that when I do this, it's coming from some internal drive to prove my work ethic or importance or some other quality that I feel the world uses to measure my value. Instead of bragging about busy-ness, seek to simplify and put the things that matter most in life at the top of your priority list. Remember that how you choose to spend your time is how you will spend your life.

#7 Criticism from people that matter is necessary to improve

It gives you insight into the value you provide or are expected to provide to the person expecting it, and enables you to shift, change and grow to increase your impact and value to the world. The hard part is defining the people that matter (see #1 above). For me, my close friends and family and the people that are inherently affected by the work that I do - my clients, the junior staff on my projects, my colleagues, my readers - matter. As do all of the people I've encountered in life who have inspired me, challenged me, invested in my and helped me along the way.

#6 Allow yourself to change your mind

This is so important today, more than ever. Our media is rapidly changing, moving away from trusted sources of balanced truth to conglomerate engines that put ratings and viewership over their duty to the public. We form baseless opinions based on what we hear others express, rather than thinking critically about what we're hearing and seeking alternate perspectives. Then, we associate those opinions as part of our identity and defend them even when presented with conflicting information. Replace the need to be right with the desire to understand, and be open to change.

#7 Anything truly wonderful and worthwhile takes time

This is a hard one to accept in a world where you can have virtually anything you want shipped to your home within a matter of minutes or hours literally without lifting a finger. Having an incredible marriage, a meaningful and fulfilling career, a healthy body, a home you love, a higher purpose to your life are great things to aspire to, but cannot be achieved without significant effort. There's no such thing as finding the perfect man, or job, or diet, or short sale. The value you realize in any of these endeavors is directly related to the willingness you have to do the tedious, unglamorous, and often self-sacrificing work involved. It's taken me a very long time to recognize this, but I've realized that the primary reason

I value the most wonderful elements of my life is the sacrifice and effort that it took to obtain them in the first place.

#8 Actively fighting off negativity is the only thing that can make you happy

Although I talk about the power of positivity a lot on this blog, I've been very susceptible to negativity during certain times of my life. It was easy for me to blame external factors at the time, but the reality is that I allowed myself to become lazy in my thinking and enabled cynicism to take over. It saps joy, diminishes your motivation, blocks your ability to be grateful and blinds you to the amazing blessings in your life. Choosing to be happy is actually a thing.

In summary, I'll leave you with my all-time favorite quote that helps to keep me centered, resist external influences, and focus on the things that truly matter to me (and if you've been reading for a while, you'll remember this from  a past post): 

"To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best day and night to make you like everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight and never stop fighting."

- E.E. Cummings

Thank you so much for reading! I'd love to hear your thoughts on this post - please let me know in the comments.