Whether you’ve noticed it or not, we talk a lot about failure.
There are endless inspirational articles about it. They tell you about falling down and getting back up. About resilience and endurance. About the thousands of successful people who first failed and how we, too, can be heroic and successful just like them. I know that these articles exist because I’ve written a few of them myself. And I believe them with all of my heart – failure can be a noble and empowering experience. Except for when it’s not.
Because here’s the harsh truth about failure: It’s not always going to be pretty. It’s not always going to be endearing. Failure isn’t always going to be a product of external circumstances wreaking havoc – sometimes it will be entirely a product of our own unmoderated judgement. The situations we manipulated carelessly. The hearts we were clumsy and rough with. The things that we risked and then lost. The failures that are hardest to recover from are the ones that we walked into willingly and selfishly, thinking they’d lead us somewhere better. They are the failures that kick us off our own team.
Every inspirational article on failure talks about believing in yourself and bouncing back. But we don’t talk about what it feels like to not want to believe in ourselves anymore in the wake of a mistake. We don’t talk about what it feels like when it seems like we don’t deserve to get up off the floor and try again. We don’t talk about the shame that accompanies those huge, avoidable errors that we make, because we eternally want that silver lining that saves us from ourselves. And we can’t bear the thought that there may not be one.
Not all failures are worthy of redemption – and that’s the cold hard truth. You may never see the silver lining. Years from now you may look back on what you’ve done and, as humans tend to do, assign some sort of arbitrary meaning to it – some sense of “I would not have gotten here without having been there,” but it may never be enough to dissolve the lump inside of your throat. It may never fill up the whole that failure carved out inside of you.
And so often this has to do with the process that brought you to failure. We fail with elegance when we are proud of who we are. When we can stand behind the choices we made. But if we can’t, our errors swallow us whole. When you’re knocked from a villainous pedestal, that sense of failure is crippling because it leaves you alone with yourself. It forces you to face up to every wrong decision that led you up to that point and to realize who you’ve become as a result. I understand that more than anyone. I’ve been somebody who I am not proud of too.
Failure isn’t always about learning a lesson, and to imply as much is demeaning to everyone involved. Some mistakes invoke to much collateral damage to merit a positive spin. So let’s simply call failures the one thing that they always are – change. Because by definition, our failures alter everything.
We won’t always get a glorious comeback from our mistakes – and so we shouldn’t. Some failures aren’t about bouncing right back up and giving it another go. Some failures are about genuine change. Intensive self-reflection. And coming to the deep understanding that you can’t go on living the way you have been.
Some catastrophes are not there to teach you a lesson, but to stop you in your tracks. To humble you. To disassemble the parts of yourself that were operating from a place of pain and to destroy them before they take you over. Some failures are as painful and as disarming as they are because they’re there to hold you back from an even worse fate – a life that brings you further and further away from the person you want to be. Some failures are not a lesson learned but a lesson forced. And it’s so often the exact lesson we need.
So here’s what we do when we get knocked off that pedestal: We get up. Not because we’re empowered. Not because we necessarily deserve to. Not because we ought to give whatever twisted goal we were pursuing another go but because we owe it to the world to get up. To make a change. To let our failures resonate and alter us in ways we would never have previously considered.
We cannot spend our time hoping that our big failures will make sense later on. We have to make them sense. We have to choose our own ending. We have to change, as a deliberate and direct result of whatever we have failed at. Let that change be your apology to yourself or the Universe or anyone who got caught up as collateral damage along the way. Let the rest of your life be the apology that you and your loved ones and the Universe needs from you. Let that be you getting back up.
We don’t talk about our huge, overwhelming, most shameful failures because we don’t want to admit what they reveal about who we are. But therein lies the choice – you get to decide, after every failure, every defeat, every life-altering mistake – what kind of person you are. What kind of person you’ve been. And what kind of person you’re finally ready to become instead.