The Zen of Failure

Despite my aversion to rolling over and exposing my soft, pink underbelly, the blog posts that draw the most readers and get the strongest reactions, are the ones where I publicly fail – or at least, come close enough to failure to see the shreds of my dignity in its teeth and catch the reek of shame on its breath.  

I don’t attribute the popularity of those posts to some kind of schadenfreude thing. There are very few people around who actually enjoy seeing others fail. In fact, just the opposite usually happens; a certain amount of failure brings out the best in people. It attracts and engages us, makes us want to help.  Many of us enjoy rooting for the underdogs – specifically because they are the underdogs.

For those on the receiving end of that attention, it’s nice when people sit up and take notice – even for the wrong reasons. As long as we don’t play the “woe is me” card too often, it can even give us a sense of achievement and reinforce our sense of self worth.

There's a bunch of stuff we all know at some level, but it can be hard putting it into practice - and can even be hard to remember in the face of a fresh batch of failures. When it comes to pitting the things you know against the things you feel, the emotion smacks us upside the head more often than not.

Here are some things I've been thinking about that put everything into perspective for me:

The Differences Between Failure and Misfortune

Photo by Nathan Cowley from Pexel
When we are laid low by illness, disaster or other unforeseen circumstances, that’s not failure, it’s just misfortune.

Genuine failure comes from within. Whether we’re trying to do something we are not qualified or fully prepared for; taking a shot in the dark and hoping for the best; or coming close enough to the brass ring to break our knuckles on it in the attempt to grab it.

External forces can play a part – but only when we demonstrate the hubris to defy insurmountable odds. Or fail to respond quickly and appropriately when someone throws a wrench in the works.

Most human failure comes from errors in judgement – being optimistic when pessimism is called for; putting our opinion out there when discretion would have been a better approach; or simply trying to get away with performing poorly. In its simplest form, failure is simply lack of success.

Defining Success

Ah, that’s the nub!  What the hell is success, anyway?

It’s something that most of us experience everyday – at least in small measures, even if it is limited to getting up and walking to the bus stop, or driving the car to work. These are small steps toward a larger goal. Our paycheque is our reward.

Although the thrill of small repetitive successes wears off pretty quickly,  they give as all at least a passing acquaintance with success, in some ways, conditioning us to expect success on a larger scale.  
Absence of Failure is Not the Same as Success

You can’t fail at something you don’t attempt – and the fear of failure makes many of us hesitate to go beyond our comfort zones. Modern media enables us to vicariously experience the success of others. We enjoy witnessing the success of people we see as more privileged or beautiful or talented than ourselves. We like getting close to it – hoping that success, like luck, may rub off. We enjoy being part of it. A partner’s success can feel almost as good as achieving something ourselves.  

No matter how risk averse we are, there are a few times in everyone’s life, we set ourselves  extraordinary goals that test our limitations: like striking out on our own, losing 60 pounds, writing a book or climbing a mountain. Sometimes life sets these goals for us – as in when we get pressured to close a massive business deal. The danger, or even likelihood, of ultimate failure makes those achievements rarer and more precious. Very often, the goal is just to succeed in large enough increments to make us feel good about the effort.

Succeeding in Increments

So what if you don’t pass your driver’s test the first time? It just tells you what to expect the next time, and helps you train for a successful run the second or third time. No biggie. Ask an athlete how close they came to the world record their first time out.  They may laugh out loud, or give you a puzzled look. If it was that easy, then why would people spend so much of their lives in training? Most athletes enjoy small scale successes along the way. Best among your friends, at your school, your gym, or on your team –  best in the city, the province, the country.  It takes work and dedication to reach every one of those stages. If you put it in perspective, you can see every failure as just a step toward success.  

When investors look for entrepreneurs and ideas and businesses to invest in – what they most often look for are serial entrepreneurs. Why? Because it shows that you failed and you took the lesson from it and kept pressing forward. Investors prefer to work with people who have failed. Because it shows you have the gumption to try in the first place, and the perseverance to keep going.

So failure isn’t something to be feared and avoided – it’s something that should be courted and embraced. Learning to come to terms and deal with failure is the greatest skill you can possibly master.

After all, the journey counts more than the destination, especially when you master the zen of failure.


  1. This was a surprisingly inspirational piece, well crafted and intelligently written.

    1. Thanks Derryl,
      Believe it or not, this post actually began as an appeal for people to give me tips about how to get more comments! Sometimes you need to tell people about your failures for them to even know you've tried and failed! And sometimes the zeitgeist does things its own way. Ha!


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