When failure is the best possible option

“If I’m lucky, I’ll fail.” I overheard this eyebrow-raising thought while making breakfast in my rooftop nest in Tel Aviv last summer. I considered myself lucky to hear it: usually our subconscious minds hide these heresies with Cloaks of Invisibility. But I caught mine unawares this particular morning; either that, or my subconscious finally grew tired of the years of self-deception.

An idea for a new business venture had consumed me for the previous few weeks, and it was a good one on paper. I’d missed catching the start-up wave in San Francisco, yet in Tel Aviv I’d found a new wave: a smoking hot start-up community where my particular skills could be valuable. I went to meet-ups, attended a couple VC parties, and identified a compelling white space. Boom! Here it was, my next chapter. I’d figured it out.

And yet.

Just because it was a good idea didn’t make it a good idea for me. Just because I could, didn’t mean I should. My secret wish for failure came not from low self-esteem, but rather from that still small voice within me that knew without question, “this is not the way.” I’d heeded my intuition’s call to come to Tel Aviv from Morocco, and perhaps that listening encouraged me to listen again. To not assume why I was here (to start a business!) but rather to collect more clues for my journey.

I’d experienced more than my fair share of failures throughout my career; perhaps those failures were trying to tell me something. And standing in my kitchen that morning, I can’t say I knew what that something was…. but I felt a gentle breeze coming from a window of curiosity that cracked open at the idea that, just maybe, there were other options for me to explore.

It’s perilously easy for those of us with diverse skills and interests to be dazzled by good ideas. Easy to be lured down roads that are not ours to walk, slowly losing the ability to make decisions based on our truth. Confusing “I am capable of doing this” for “I was born to do this” is how we lose ourselves, or how we stay lost.

Perhaps the root of self-sabotage is precisely this tendency to set ourselves up for failure when secretly it’s not what we really want to do anyway. If we persist in the name of should’s and expectations, failure can be the best thing that happens to us; the real tragedy would be to succeed at something that will eventually suffocate our passion for life.

The real tragedy would be to succeed at something that will eventually suffocate our passion for life.

Even if we are on the right path — if there is such a thing — we’ll encounter failure. This has been written about too frequently for me to belabor the point with more than the following observation: Failure can simply be a sign that we’re simply not there yet. Maybe we’re doing the right thing, but with an unhelpful mindset. Maybe if we change a single variable – like location, or communication style, or start saying no — a whole universe opens up. It’s usually worth experimenting and tinkering to see what’s what.

It’s so easy to want an answer, or as my friend Kate eloquently wrote, rush through the breakdown without first finding the beauty in it. Tired of the lessons, we don’t want to have to try again, and again, and again in order to get it right, or to find the treasure. Often that’s the product of thinking too small, believing that what we seek is for other people, not for us. When failure is seen as a permanent life sentence that commits us to a small cell of existence, we stop persisting. Failure becomes a blockade instead of a stepping stone.

There’s another kind of failure — not the one that we encounter when we’re on the wrong path, but the one that inevitably happens when the current chapter has run its course. Perhaps the reason we fear failure so much is because it’s a lot like death. Everything in this world has a natural lifecycle… yet instead of flowing with this truth, we fight it. This struggle against inevitability saps our life force, and drains our belief that we have the capability to change or fix anything.

When we’re “moving from failure to failure without a loss of enthusiasm,” as Churchill once wrote, that’s one thing; the sense of possibility on the horizon pulls us forward. But when the glory days have passed, when the machine is grinding to a halt, when the chasm grows wider by the day… sometimes it’s better to let failure run its course so that something new can be born out of the ashes.

Sometimes it’s better to let failure run its course so that something new can be born out of the ashes.

“Dammit, I will make this work!” is what we say when we can’t let something go. Lord knows I said it countless times during my unsatisfying career as a consultant. “Persistence is a virtue” — except when it’s not. “Failure is not an option” — except when it is. Except when we’re choosing to keep something on life support instead of allowing failure to birth an unknown future… whether that’s a career, a relationship, a company or a country. And it takes a lot of failures to finally be able to discern the difference.

What are you keeping on life support out of fear of failure or the unknown?

What failure will you create this week in order to scratch one option off your list?

What past failure will you forgive and appreciate as a learning opportunity?

What failure of someone else can you forgive as part of their own learning journey?

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