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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  1. The first career I trained for was definitely a failure…but not my failure. I’ll admit I spent far too long trying to get a professional position where those in power had already determined I would only be accepted as an unpaid volunteer. My shortcoming was in taking so long to realize the ‘glass ceiling’ was designed to be unbreakable. No amount of higher education or practical experience would be taken into account.

    My success was in grieving the loss, dusting myself off and starting over in a new direction. I may have lost a few years and some cold hard cash but the profession denied me has lost far more. Success starts as a state of mind.

    • I love that: “My success was in grieving the loss, dusting myself off and starting over in a new direction.” Thanks, Phyllis.

  2. This is great, Jenna. I’m reminded of Suzanne Falter Barns’ definition of failure: “There really is no such thing as failure. There is only the rearrangement of plans and surrender of ego. Suzanne Falter-Barns.”

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