Take a close enough look at any life of note, and you’ll quickly discover a legacy of failure.
However, it’s important to distinguish between failed experiments and failure in the Platonic ideal sense of the word.
Experimental failure happens when you try something, and it doesn’t work the way you intended.
We’ve all experienced this brand of failure before. Perhaps you once worked up the courage to ask someone out, and you were turned down. Or, maybe you launched a new product on the market only to be met with utter silence.
Regardless of the form it takes, this kind of experimental failure hurts, but it still has a silver lining. These experiences enable us to learn from our mistakes, find new solutions, and grow as individuals.
True failure, in the Platonic sense of the word, isn’t something that happens to us. Instead, it’s something we choose for ourselves, occurring when we allow the pain of our experimental failures to change our hearts and our minds for the worse.
Looking back at my life to-date, I realize that it’s a story of serial failures punctuated by quiet moments of success.
This statement isn’t meant to be disheartening. Instead, I say it with pride. I’ve failed a lot because I’ve tried a lot of different things. I’ve never let my fear hold me back from new experiences.
….and the farmer continued to plow
Sure, some of the experiments I’ve made in the past have blown up in my face, but I haven’t let that fact deter me from moving forward.
There have been painful moments, however, where I’ve come close to just quitting; to allowing my pain to change my outlook on life. Every time I’ve stood on the precipice of real failure, however, I’ve found a way to pull myself back because of a thought process I’ve refined over the past few years.
Remember the plowman and the fall of Icarus
There is a famous painting titled “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” frequently (but not definitively) attributed to the Dutch and Flemish Renaissance painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder.
The painting depicts a scene with a farmer plowing a field overlooking the sea. In the background you see ships in the harbor, presumably going about their normal business. It is only in the lower right corner of the painting that you can see a small figure of Icarus drowning in the water.
Icarus, for those of you who don’t remember, was the son of the inventor Daedalus, who escaped captivity along with his father by crafting wings bound together with wax. Icarus, enthralled by the experience of flight, ignored his father’s warnings and flew too close to the sun.
The hot sun melted the wax that held his wings together, and he plummeted into the sea where he drowned.
Given the tragic nature of the story, it’s somewhat surprising to see that the titular Icarus plays such a small role in the painting. Instead, it is the farmer who takes up most of the scene.
It is important to note that there is an old Flemish proverb along the lines of “And the farmer continued to plow…” that has factored into other of Bruegel’s works. It’s meant to illustrate that man cares not for the suffering of his fellow man.
I think back to this in a slightly different sense when confronting the pain of my failures. We fear failure in part because we fear that people who witness it will somehow think less of us.
The truth is that most people are so preoccupied with their own lives that they hardly take notice of your failure or suffering.
Just as the plowman ignored Icarus drowning in the sea, the people around you don’t care about your failures and therefore don’t think less of you.
This is a good lesson for us to remember in our personal and professional lives. Our sufferings are never as earth-shattering as we think they are. The world will move on, and so will we.
Refine your experiments
It’s important to remember that even the most painful of failures represents an opportunity to grow. If failures are the undesired results of our experiments, then we must find ways to learn from those experiments, refine them, and continue pushing forward.
Recently, my company tried something new. We shifted our focus towards generating organic franchise leads of our own. Our goal was to tap into a new market and break free from the hold that traditional lead sources held over us.
We invested a lot of capital into this effort, both in terms of money and human resources. Unfortunately, it was a flop. We ended up underperforming even our most conservative assumptions and made more than a few people angry in the process.
The failure hit me hard, partially because it was my pet project. However, looking back I can safely say that we learned quite a bit about our initial thesis, how we experimented, and what we can do differently in the future.
Was it costly? Yes. Was it painful? Absolutely. But I can now safely say I’m smarter because of my experience. It taught me about setting expectations, refining internal processes, and managing partners.
I could dwell on the negative, or I could learn the lessons the experience offered and find a way to move forward. For me, there was only one real option: keep moving forward.
Regroup and keep moving forward
I’m not trying to lessen the pain of failure. The consequences and emotional distress they cause can be genuine. However, we only experience real, lasting failure when we let these setbacks knock us down for good.
When bad things happen, all you can do is accept them, regroup, and plot a path forward. Don’t wallow in self-pity, or allow the pain you experience to cripple you going forward. Just keep moving.
Like in the “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” the world will keep spinning. People won’t pay notice to your failures, and if they do, you can rest assured that they’ll soon be forgotten. Treat each failure as an opportunity to refine your experiments, and keep pushing forward. If you do, you’ll find that the pain of defeat will fade fast and give way to new opportunities.