The Importance of Failure


If you’ve ever been around inspirational speakers, you may have heard them talking about the fact that many people who become millionaires go through one or more episodes of being broke. They failed, but they didn’t label themselves failures, nor did they quit trying. The basic idea is that risk taking leads to failure, but it also leads to success. You can’t win if you don’t play, etc. etc.

What you don’t hear as much about is the importance of failure when you feel like you really are a failure. 

Now,  you may be thinking something like, “Yeah, right. The importance of failure when you feel like you already are a failure is that it sucks, it brings you down, it makes you more likely to really become a failure.” That’s not exactly what I had in mind. What I’m thinking about relates to an old John Bradshaw saying, “Anything that’s worth doing is worth doing badly.” The first time I heard it, I’ll admit I was puzzled.  Then he explained it.

From my point of view, the sidelight (I’ll get back to Bradshaw’s explanation) on this is that when we get to a place of recognizing that what we’ve been doing doesn’t work, we’re frequently stuck for something that does work. Maybe I’ve gotten really good at my old behavior– I cope with negative feelings by alcohol or drug use, or I get attention by acting out in a self harming way. There are lots of ways to cope that seem like a good idea at the time, or we just sort of fall into, or used to work in some old set of circumstances but don’t work now. Then something happens and we realize we have to change. But how?

Now I come back to Bradshaw. The thing is, if I start doing a new behavior, I’m at the bottom of the learning curve. So whatever the new behavior may be, I’m likely to be bad at it. So I don’t get any obvious or immediate benefit from it. And I miss my old familiar behavior, even if it was hurting me. But if I’m going to successfully change, I have to keep trying until I get away from that flat part at the beginning of the learning curve. So if the behavior is worth getting good at, it’s also worth putting up with being bad at it to begin with. A familiar version of this is the alcoholic who realizes that no more DUI’s can be tolerated, or that the health consequences are becoming too much to bear, but who doesn’t know how to socialize without a drink in hand. Or the teen who’s learned to cut in response to feeling bad and doesn’t know what else to do. Or the person who’s isolated by depression, but just isolates more as they get more and more depressed. Perfectionism becomes the enemy. Failure becomes the friend.

The extra twist on this is developing the paradoxical ability to fail successfully. What do I mean by failing successfully? Well, if the person trying to change is the newly abstinent alcoholic, failing successfully means tolerating the discomfort of trying to socialize without a drink. It feels like failure– “I’m no good at it.” But with repetition– and some feedback, perhaps from a therapist, perhaps an AA sponsor– the person learns that hey, when you try to meet people, not everyone likes you. And you don’t necessarily like everyone you meet, either. No big deal. The disappointment passes, and you can strike up a conversation with someone else, or try a different class, or a different volunteer gig to meet people. Or the depressed person learns that sitting in a cafe with a book or laptop feels better than sitting at home, even if they don’t strike up a conversation. Or the teen learns that there are people to talk to about negative feelings, or other activities to work out negative energy– possibly running, or playing a musical instrument. But you’re not going to be great the first time you try. So failing successfully means failing at a new behavior, rather than failing by going back to old behavior. And success, in this view, can be obtained by setting the bar quite low. You succeed at failing if you deal with your negative feelings– whether they come from within, or from some unhappy event in the external world– by doing any new behavior, not your old behavior.

This idea requires a small but important bit of common sense– I don’t replace my drinking with cutting, or vice versa. But my experience in working with clients is that people are pretty quickly able to grasp and execute the idea: “I wanted to drink to oblivion, so I went home and pulled the covers over my head and took a nap. I completely blew off my whole life for half a day, but I didn’t get loaded.” OR “I wanted to punch out that window and break it, but I worked out my energy by doing push ups until I was too tired to be angry. I was really bummed at how few push ups that was, but I didn’t act out.”

Of course when we first try to change, we won’t be very good at it. But as we continue with a certain willingness to flail, we can develop a diversified portfolio of coping techniques as well as an increased ability to tolerate negative feelings. Getting support and guidance through the process, sometimes with a therapist, or perhaps from a helpful peer who’s been there and done that, usually helps. But you still have to do the work. I’ve never found a way around the old maxim that “To get what you want to get, you have to do what you don’t want to do.” Or as Jack Lalanne always said, “Hate to exercise. Love the results!” 


About jamesmatter

Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT) in private practice in San Francisco. I work with adults, adolescents, and couples, with focus on substance use and abuse and co-occurring disorders (having both a mental illness and an addiction).
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12 Responses to The Importance of Failure

  1. I find that I stopped using the failure and started using the words stumbling block. Eventually I learn to go around it, go over it, or go through it.

  2. janyasilad says:

    Great title! 😀
    Stuff about failure is just as important as success: people need to listen and read more about it.
    And then, I remembered JK Rowling’s speech; that part when she said, “Now, I am not going to stand here and tell you that failure is fun.”

  3. glenn2point0 says:

    Building resilience is an important aspect of dealing with life and that comes via failure. Keeping the perceived failure in perspective is very important. It’s not the end of the world if something does not work out on the first try. Understanding that you don’t have to do everything on your own and asking questions to learn why your are failing is also important. . .

    • jamesmatter says:

      We always bounce, in my opinion. It’s a question of having more control over one’s spin and direction. If you like the metaphor.

      • glenn2point0 says:

        And for some to get that control requires medication.

      • jamesmatter says:

        Yep. Don’t rule meds in or out automatically. People can go on meds and still have no life skills, but the symptoms get tolerable enough to create a space to learn. And there are lots of other scenarios

  4. Lemuel says:

    i like this.

  5. Applause* What I tell some of my peers is that, it’s not easy to stop the things you like or are use to keeping you stuck(people, places, things) . So having a made up mind is just that. Make up your mind and stay focused. Falling off doesn’t mean giving up.

    • jamesmatter says:

      The mindfulness people would suggest that, having made up one’s mind, one needs to go on making up one’s mind repeatedly. One needs to gently, nonjudgmentally, bring the mind back to focus on the thing one chooses to focus on, even in the face of unpleasant sensations, ideas, feelings, or thoughts. Let go of labels like “success” or “failure” and go more in a direction what works and what doesn’t work.

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