What is failure? What is success?

I got into a fascinating dialogue with one of my Circle members the other day, which blossomed into a topic on our live coaching call yesterday, and I just can’t get it out of my head. 

She’d been musing with a friend over  “whether or not failure should be a factor in deciding whether or not to pursue a big project. How big a chance of success do you need to feel energized about what you’re doing? How much do you have to enjoy the task itself in order to keep moving forward when the chance of success is small? What do you do when the chance of success seems very low and you hit a snag that removes your enjoyment of the process?”

In turn it got me thinking about failure.

What is failure?

What is failure really, except one attempt that hasn’t worked?

And if we keep failing and failing and failing again, aren’t we that much closer to “succeeding?”

I’m reminded of Thomas Edison’s many light bulb creation attempts and how he saw each “failure” as information — he had discovered what didn’t work.

I’m also reminded of this excerpt of lines from the movie Contact, one of my favorites of all time:

Executive: “We must confess that your proposal seems less like science and more like science fiction.”

Ellie Arroway: “Science fiction. Well you’re right, it’s crazy. In fact, it’s even worse than that, nuts.”

[slams down her briefcase and marches up to the desk]

Ellie Arroway: “You wanna hear something really nutty? I heard of a couple guys who wanna build something called an ‘airplane’, you know, you get people to go in, and fly around like birds, it’s ridiculous, right? And what about breaking the sound barrier, or rockets to the moon, or atomic energy, or a mission to Mars? Science fiction, right? Look, all I’m asking, is for you to just have the tiniest bit of vision. You know, to just sit back for one minute and look at the big picture. To take a chance on something that just might end up being the most profoundly impactful moment for humanity, for the history… of history.”

All too often, success requires an incredible level of risk, vision, perseverance, and belief — and we have to find it within ourselves to generate those necessary ingredients.

If we define failure as not achieving the results we are pursuing, we can choose to try something new, rather than defining it as a personal failing, or even defining it as a failure at all. We can think of it as information.

We often are told that we have to define success on our own terms.

Perhaps we should also define failure on our own terms.

We each have to know, individually inside ourselves, when it is time to “call it” and walk away from an idea or a project or an attempt and when we need to keep forging ahead. (Seth Godin talks about this more in his book The Dip). My experience is that we’re usually closest to a breakthrough when our inner critics and our fears are screaming at us in the loudest possible voices, which is when we’re most likely to quit.

Those voices usually say something like, “You’ll never make it. You’ll never figure it out. You’ve failed, you’re a failure.”

And I think that if we define failure as a personal flaw or character deficit, we will be more likely to walk away from a project too soon in the process.

And isn’t it really about enjoying the process as well — whatever IT is? Light bulbs, writing, painting. Whatever it is for you.

What is success?

And what is success?

Is it when we get paid? Or paid a certain amount of money?

Is it when we get recognized?

Is it when people like it?

Did Joss Whedon (one of my writing heroes) only really succeed when The Avengers was so financially successful? Or had he succeeded far earlier than that?

Is it something we only know when we get there?

And then what? Isn’t there more after that anyway? It’s not usually like it is in the movies, where we reach a “final” climactic success and the credits roll, right? Life goes on.

Just like it does after a “failure.”

Make your own definitions

When I took a class with Corey Mandell, he talked about defining our successes based on something that we actually have the ability to control, like finishing our projects, writing or working prolifically, picking out skills we want to develop further and strengthen for ourselves, honing our craft, and building a solid writing habit.

When we define successes and failures on extrinsic variables we can’t control, well, as Corey said, “Welcome to hell.”

Your Turn

So how have you defined success and failure so far? Might you adjust your definitions to bring them within your own control? What would that be like for you?

I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments

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Failure, Zombies, Systems, and Steven Pressfield

I was emailing with a beloved client this week who was concerned about setting herself up for failure by taking on something she might not be ready for.

I said, “It’s not about failing or not failing, it’s about learning what works for you and what doesn’t, and refining until it does.”

She made a great choice to take a midway step toward the thing she was considering. 

In the meantime, our conversation got me thinking about failure and our relationship to it.

The Payoff of Incapacity

Then today I started reading Steven Pressfield’s new book, Turning Pro: Tap Your Inner Power and Create Your Life’s Work. (If you haven’t read his stuff, don’t wait. He’s amazing.) He says:

“There’s a difference between failing (which is a natural and normal part of life) and being addicted to failure. When we’re addicted to failure, we enjoy it. Each time we fail, we are secretly relieved.”

He argues that when you remain addicted to failure you allow yourself to indulge in the “payoff of incapacity.” And what’s the payoff there? Leaving your talents “unexplored, untried, and unrealized.”

And doesn’t that make sense?

Let’s face it, fulfilling your dreams is wickedly terrifying. What if you do fail? What if you can’t rise to the challenge?

It’s safer not to try. Easier to stay addicted to failure.

But you don’t really want to be a zombie, right?

To me, the risk of not trying is much more costly.

Our culture is filled with shadow people — speaking of zombies, these are the real walking dead — never pursuing their hopes and dreams, selling out for the American dream and not living their own.

We pay with our souls when we don’t do our Work.

Edison Knew Better

In various online sources, the numbers differ about exactly how many times Thomas Edison failed when he attempted to make a light bulb, but there is agreement on one thing: He made so many attempts that most of us would have given up long before he did. LONG before.

His take on the situation was to say that he had not failed, but rather proven that all those other methods did not work.

Design Better Experiments

Which takes me back to my client and the principle I shared with her.

When we choose to see our “failures” as failed experiments, we can design new ones, and see what works better.

Create Better Systems

For example, I have been terrible about filing for years. On Monday it dawned on me that I simply need a better system and that I haven’t completely finished designing that system. I’ve worked on it, it’s better, but it isn’t done. That’s all. It’s not that I’m a bad person or even bad at filing, it’s that I don’t have a workable system yet.

Look at What’s Not Working

As another example, at one point I had a bad system for paying my team too. They would email me their invoices and I would procrastinate about paying them. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to, it was that it seemed overwhelming. Sometimes I’d even be worried the invoices would be too high. I’d have to force myself to download and open their invoices, figure out how much I owed them, write the checks, address the envelopes, get them in the mail, etc. I’d do it, but it felt like pulling teeth. I was often late.

Needless to say, no one was very happy about it, so we came up with a new system.

My team members now put their invoice numbers and amounts due in the subject lines of their email messages to me. At a glance, I know exactly how much I owe them. We also made an agreement that I’d pay them no later than 2 days after I receive their invoices. And they all send them on a specific day every other week. I also have sheet of pre-printed address labels for each of them ready to go.

Now, when the time comes, I just whip out my checkbook, write out the checks, drop them in the self-sealing envelopes, decorate them with the address labels and stamps and voilà. Done.

Something I used to dread has become simple and doable, just because I took the time to create a system for it.

This Works for the Big Stuff too

When it comes to the big stuff, your Work, this works too.

For example, if you want to build your business, but you’re not taking steps each day to do that, look at what’s getting in the way and what you’re doing instead.

If you want to write but you think you don’t have the time, look — really, truly LOOK — at what you’re doing with with your time.

If you want to put yourself out there for speaking gigs, getting more clients, doing more art, or going on more auditions, look at what you’re doing, or not doing, to make that happen.

Then create a system to help you overcome the roadblocks you’re unwittingly putting in your own way.

Bottom Line

The beauty of taking time to really LOOK at where your systems are breaking down — at where you are “failing” — is that it can make a huge difference in your sense of accomplishment and belief in yourself. Which is so worth the investment.

Your turn

Share your thoughts. I always love to hear from you.