I recently watched a wonderful documentary, The Barkley Marathons, about an ultra endurance trail race that takes place in the Tennessee mountains. Only 40 runners are accepted into the race each year. Covering the entire distance of 160 kilometres (100 mile) or more also requires climbing and descending the equivalent of Mount Everest – twice. To be successful, runners must complete the course in 60 hours. In most years, none of the racers finish the race. In some years, only one or two people complete the distance within the time limit. In the film, the race director muses about the runners who undertake this incredible challenge, knowing there is a high likelihood they will fail. These runners may be successful in other areas of their life, they learn something about themselves by challenging and testing their limits of physical and mental endurance, and failing. According to the race director, “people are better for having done the race. They’re not made of better stuff, but they’re better for having done it”.
This approach goes against a common attitude toward failure – that failure should be avoided, sometimes at all cost and that to feel good about ourselves we need to succeed. The assumption is that we learn and benefit from success but not failure.
From this perspective, failure is often seen as humiliating which leads to feelings of deep shame and negative beliefs such as “I’m a failure”, “I’m a loser”, I’m nothing”, “I’ll never get it right”. Procrastination and avoidance may ensue, in an effort to stave off such painful feelings and negative beliefs about oneself. Later, fear of failure may develop to the extent that risk analysis is employed, posing questions such as “Why bother trying”, “What are the chances I’ll be able to do it?”, “Will I be any good at that?” and may occur without taking the opportunity to actually try, or learn the skill. The implicit belief now is “I can’t do it” – without having tried. Opportunities are lost due to fear of failure.
In my practice, I see many people experiencing a sense of failure with its attendant negative beliefs. They experience failure, not just from activities, but from loss as well. Loss can take many forms: loss of control of one’s body during pregnancy, labour and birth, athletic pursuits or physical careers such as dance, loss of physical capacity due to chronic debilitating illness or traumatic injuries, loss of financial security whether from choices made or unforeseen circumstances. There may be losses associated with aging (for example, loss of physical or mental capacity, loss of purpose when work life ends or children grow up and leave home), loss of relationships due to divorce or death. These experiences can lead to shame and thoughts such as “I am a failure” and “now I am nothing”. There is a loss of sense of self, a loss of self-worth. Dr. Gordon Neufeld, a world renowned Vancouver development psychologist draws very good distinctions between achievement and self-esteem. In his workshop, which I attended years ago, Dr. Neufeld made it clear that achieving something feels good and positive, but it doesn’t make you a good person, just as failure doesn’t make you a bad person. Our self-worth is immutable, unchanged whether we succeed or not.
Loss is not “less than”. Failure doesn’t make a value statement. Failure and its attendant frustration and disappointment is to be acknowledged. Loss is to be mourned. With failure we can learn that changes and loss can be met, acknowledged, experienced, LIVED and lived through. Challenges can be faced – the challenge of getting up and trying again, of adapting, growing, and accepting (accepting our limits, of accepting help). This is the territory of humility, of being humble and using the experience to move beyond.
Failure, approached with humility and curiosity leads to learning, growth, openness, connecting. As Thomas Edison said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work”. Failure experienced as humiliation, leads to a sense of being ‘less than’, to emotional shut down, avoidance, retraction, disconnection from self and others.
Consider the words of J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books in her convocation address to Harvard graduations: “…some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all 0 in which case, you fail by default….The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true gift…”