In Praise of Failure ~ Observations

Guest Column by Edward Reid




What’s it like to be called a failure or loser?  We live in a success-driven society. What did I accomplish today? Self and other affirmation? The discussion of failure is often taboo. We don’t bring this up at dinner parties or often even share these with those closest to us.  Failure is about comparing myself with others rather than comparing myself with myself. If that sounds biblical or ancient, it is. Check St. Paul’s Letters to Galatians and Romans. It was a relatively common observation among ancient writers from the Middle East to Asia (See Confucius’ writings).

If I am constantly setting up myself through comparison to others it can be demoralizing. It hinders my growth.  Cooperation outweighs competition. And acknowledging my own physical and mental limits while exploring those boundaries is an opportunity to minimize the perception of failure. I then move beyond the fear of the “failure perception”.

Maybe it’s more advantageous to reframe this concept. Success is often tied to capitalism and competition along with comparison. Competing against others rather than myself is self-limiting and self-destructive.

In the context of capitalism and the psychology of, and lack of, finding meaningful work is more of an indictment of capitalism and perhaps competition itself than who I am. As long as money is tied to success which is woven with one’s standard of living the failure of the economic system is glaring. Success in capitalism is tied to wealth. Success, especially financial, means winner. Whereas success in reality is about a non-monetary value. 

Our personal success is linked to who we are as “a person”. The path to success may be littered with obstacles. If we are wise, we learn from our mistakes and do something different the next time.

Standing in the shadows, accepting our fate, or simply playing our assigned role won’t lead to a contented life. Those who stand in the arena and fight and still fail are more courageous than those in the stands afraid to compete. What can be worse are those that criticize others when they have never stood in their shoes. 

While struggling in military school, my father sent me a printout of Teddy Roosevelt’s speech. *  This same speech is now framed in my house. The words had a profound effect. 

I have attempted many different things in my life and failed many times from a societal standpoint. Failure in a world of comparisons is a teacher if I listen. Those who ignore this often keep doing the same thing repeatedly and failing. And fixing blame, either on others or myself, is a downward spiral. Success and failure are words built on perceptions linked to others’ values.

My so-called failures have given me a chance to refocus and reframe my choices and definition of success. Society’s definition of failure should not be something to be ashamed of. Those that have failed have tried something. They attempted to dare to do something in their life rather than sit in mediocrity and timidity.  

When people ask me about some of my successes, I tell them about some of my perceived failures. The perceived failures are what brought me my perceived success. Sharing my insight on failure can give others insight on how to avoid the pitfalls I made. 

As someone involved in film and having the moderate success that came from nothing, I can see others make the same mistakes, preferring to be stubborn and fail. Maybe this is the precipice to change their route and listen to others that have been there. Maybe not. It’s their choice.

If one is wise, they learn from their so-called failures. If one is courageous, they take chances regardless that they may fail. Failure is what we make of it within the context in which it occurred. We live in a society that blames and scapegoats and links success to money rather than the courage required of any given individual. We are not in their shoes. Nor can or should we judge them. We can only learn from our experiences. Failure is based on someone else’s perception, not your own. When we quiet the noise in our mind associated with loss, we come out ahead.

*From what is known as the “Man in the Arena”, part of a speech given by President Theodore Roosevelt on April 23, 1910

“It is not the critic who counts, not the one who points out how the strong man stumbled or how the doer of deeds might have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the Arena, whose face is marred with sweat and dust and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause; who, if he wins, knows the triumph of high achievement; and who, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”