Dealing With the F-Word (Failure!)

Failure.

The word can evoke as many strong reactions and emotions as another F-word that isn’t appropriate for polite company.

Why is that? We fail every day. (I just missed my mouth with an almond because I was concentrating on my computer screen too hard. Fail!) Yet, the prospect of failure can cause the very thing we’re trying to avoid, or even keep us from starting something we might find incredibly rewarding.

Happy funny messy eater

I believe the fear of failure is instilled early. Parents are so afraid of damaging their children’s self-esteem, we’ve created things like participation awards and have graduation ceremonies for kindergarten.

Boy painting

Now, while these things have a certain cuteness factor to them, what they don’t teach us is how to fail, or more importantly, that it’s okay to fail.

I coached youth soccer for many years and one thing I always told my players was that mistakes are good things, because they give us an opportunity to learn. Blind luck can sometimes produce a perfect result the very first time we try something, but luck isn’t reproducible. It’s only by practice — trying and failing and trying again — that we can truly master something. Even then, we are often still subject to failure.

Soccer, in fact, is what inspired this post. I was watching the Copa America championship game this weekend between Chilé and Argentina. Lionel Messi, who plays for Argentina, is arguably the best player on the planet — possibly the best player ever — yet, the game went all the way through overtime without a score for either side. When that happens, a winner is decided by a series of penalty kicks. One player places the ball on a spot, twelve yards from the goal, and has a single kick to score against the opposing goalkeeper. Now, the goal is eight feet high and twenty-four feet wide. It’s a lot of space for one person to cover and the kicker scores a goal most of the time. Piece of cake for the best player in the world, right?

Not this time.

Messi missed his penalty and Argentina went on to lose in the shootout.

The story, and lesson, however, don’t end there. How did Messi react to his failure: the first time he’d ever missed in a penalty shootout?

He RETIRED!

Yes, the pressure on him was enormous and the loss was devastating, but his failure was not the sole reason for the outcome. Other players had chances to positively impact the game and the result during the match, but they, too, failed.

Is this how we wish for our children — or ourselves — to respond in the face of failure? To quit? To give up?

How do we overcome failure?

1: Own It.

Recognize your mistake and own up to it. When confronted with failure, our first instinct is often to deny it or shift blame.

Car crash

Resist this impulse, take responsibility, and…

2: Embrace Your Opportunity to Learn

Dissect and diagnose your failure. Where, exactly, did things go wrong? What can I do to achieve a better result when I try again? Many times we will need help from an outside source with this examination. Asking for that help can often be as difficult as the failure itself, but benefitting from someone else’s experiences is usually less painful in the long run than making all the mistakes yourself! Then…

3: Define Success Before You Start Again

This sounds like it should be step one, but I think we need to try something once to establish just how difficult a task it is before we try to set goals for ourselves.

Hypothetically, let’s say a budding, not-so-young writer discovers a book called Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and sees the success J.K. Rowling had with it, then says, “Heck, I can do that!” and sits down to pen his first novel. Well, I think we can all agree that’s a recipe for failure if we’ve ever heard one. I certainly wouldn’t know anyone who has done that. *Rolls eyes and mutters*

Regardless of how easy something looks, we have to remember one key detail: If it was easy, everyone would do it. If everyone isn’t doing it, then perhaps it isn’t as easy as it appears at first glance. Why do you suppose 80% of the populace thinks “they have a novel in them if they only had the time to write it.”? If they actually sat down and tried, most would quickly reassess the difficulty of the task.

So, set goals which take effort to achieve, but aren’t so lofty as to be impossible to reach straight out of the gate. And stop to reassess often to determine if outside help might be required, or if the bar for success needs to be adjusted.

It’s been about seven years since I published my first book, which took nearly ten humbling months to complete, and I’ve written five more, plus one novella (ghost written for someone else) to date. I’m still failing and learning from those failures and I’m sure I’ll continue to do both. Ms. Rowling’s top spot hasn’t come under much threat from my direction… yet! But, I’m not about to give up and retire.

And I hope Mr. Messi reconsiders his decision and continues to offer his services playing the beautiful game for Argentina in the future. I, for one, will mourn the loss if he does not.

_____________________

TuckerPenny1010smAlan Tucker , author of The Mother-Earth Series (A Measure of Disorder, A Cure for Chaos, and Mother’s Heart), as well as a new science fiction series, beginning with Knot in Time, is a dad, a graphic designer, and a soccer coach. Mostly in that order. He’s had a lifelong adoration of books, beginning with Encyclopedia Brown, progressing through Alan Dean Foster’s Flinx, and continuing on with the likes of Jim Butcher, Rachel Caine and Naomi Novik, to name a few.

“I wanted to write books that I’d enjoy reading. Books that I hoped my kids would enjoy too!”

Visit his website for more information about his books. View maps, watch trailers, see reviews and much more!

WebsiteFacebookTwitter | Goodreads

21 thoughts on “Dealing With the F-Word (Failure!)

    1. Thank you, Lisa! I remember, as a kid, trying so many different things and dropping them immediately because they seemed too hard. What passions might I have discovered if I’d just stuck with some of them for a while?

  1. Superb post and a lesson for all. Every point you made is perfect and succinct. I absolutely needed this lesson at this moment. Thanks for providing it.

    Wish every man, woman and child could read this and learn that failure is merely a step towards success.

  2. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your post, Alan. I’ve always believed failure is a fantastic motivator. It certainly is for me.

  3. This post is fabulous on so many levels! And I thought the same thing about Messi. I was like, “Whuuuu??? Three other people missed their kicks, too!” Crazy.

    I’ll be sharing this post all over the place!

    1. Thank you so much, Lia. Sounds like there might have been more going on behind the scenes with the Argentina Federation, but it still wasn’t a good look for Messi, regardless.

  4. I don’t really watch/keep up with soccer, but that is just shocking! I can understand Mr. Messi being shocked, upset, angry, etc., but retiring?!… Anyway, I think you nailed how to deal with failure. I agree that you shouldn’t quit because it’s hard. I do think that it is okay to quit if you realize that something is definitely “not for you”, but only after you have really tried at it.

  5. Awesome, awesome pearls of wisdom! Love that— don’t be a wussy, little, fraidy cat, rise to the moment, shoot for the stars, but let’s get real, okay? (Can I pull any other idioms out of my hat? I’m on a roll! ;-)). Kidding aside, thank you for the amazing advice, and the reminder. And, yes, this writing stuff is hard, and, for some perplexing reason, it seems to get more difficult the better I get at it. I seriously thought in 2010 that I’d be churning books out by now, writing them in my sleep. Not the case. I’ve had to adjust that bar often. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *