The Privilege of Failure

We can all agree that failure is important. Think of Thomas Edison and his many light bulbs, or Winston Churchill and his ever-present enthusiasm, or Michael Jordan’s thousands of missed shots. Failure allows us to find errors. And once we find those errors, we can fix them. Better yet, we can hear about these great leaders and their failures and learn from their mistakes. Isn’t it better to learn from the failures of others without having to experience failure yourself?


There is so much more to the process of failure than finding and fixing errors. Failure is a privilege.

Personality & Failure

One of three personality motive needs is the need for achievement. This drives the Achiever Style as well as the Fear of Failure. Those who have a high need for achievement love to win and succeed. Achievers collect trophies of their successes like degrees, job titles, large paychecks, and impressive cars and homes. Their goal is to be seen as a success. Because of this need to be perceived as successful, they hate failure. More than the love of winning, Achievers loathe failure, fear failure. Unexamined, the rationale becomes that by failing, they are Failures. These assumptions are false. Succeeding does not make you a Success. Having tangible representations of your successes does not make you a Success and, by the way, does not make you happy. Trying to avoid failure does not prevent it. Most importantly, experiencing failure does not make you a Failure.

“You meet your destiny on the road you take to avoid it.” ~ Carl Jung

Paradoxical intent comes into play here. Paradoxical intent is, in short, bringing about the reality that you are trying to avoid. Remember the last time you told yourself over and over again not to do something, only to end up doing it? Don’t eat that piece of cake. Don’t scratch that new car. Don’t say something stupid. Don’t look down! There’s a reason that early-childhood educators recommend telling children what you want them to do, rather than what they shouldn’t do. Essentially, you manifest what you put the most energy into. By putting your energy into your fear of failure, instead of into achieving success, you create failure instead of success.

It gets worse. As you avoid potential failures, you actually limit your achievements. Don’t try that new recipe, because you might ruin dinner. Don’t take that trip to a new place, because you might not have fun. Don’t accept that promotion, because you might not be good at the job. Better yet, don’t even apply because you might not get accepted. Don’t even speak, because someone might disagree and you will look stupid. Unchecked, the fear of failing quickly becomes debilitating.

How can we break the cycle of fearing failure? By failing, of course! Fail often, fail gloriously, and then forgive yourself.

Fail often: Failure begins by taking a chance, embarking on an endeavor in which you might not succeed. The illusion of potential failure is not enough and success is not the point. I have met many people, particularly those with a high need for achievement, who think it is enough to succeed at something difficult, worse yet, impressive. Challenge yourself to do the things that really may lead to failure. The scary things.

Fail gloriously: Really try to succeed at an impossible task. Like Sisyphus and his boulder, embrace the inevitability of the tumble down and just focus on the climb. There are plenty of things you will learn. Not only how strong you are, but also how to be grateful for the smaller boulders in your life. And appreciation for your achievements, which seem a lot more meaningful when you’ve actually experienced failure.

Forgive yourself: Yes, you are human, and you deserve to make mistakes. Making mistakes is natural and normal. And you are worthy of love and respect because of who you are, not what you do. Failing does not make you a Failure any more than succeeding makes you a Success. You become a richer, more self-aware, more tolerant person by giving yourself permission to fail, and therein lies success. Allow me to redeem Mr. Churchill with a final thought.

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” ~ Winston Churchill

(Note to the reader: this article was professionally edited because I, too, have a fear of failure and make lots of mistakes.)

**Erika Weed is a doctoral candidate at The George Washington University, studying leadership and trying to reconcile the seemingly competing goals of happiness and success, for herself and others.

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