The Blessings of Failure

I came across an interesting pair of idea this week, ones that made me pause and ponder. The writer posited that most of us underestimate what success in a given endeavor will require in the way of time and effort. We make some early gains, and tend to think our trajectory to full mastery will be short, nearly vertical, and uneventful.

beatiful cakeThe second aspect of success posited was that it is not the years of study, not even the accolades we win or the affirmations we receive that add confidence to our competence.

What makes us truly proficient at an undertaking—parenting, writing books, cooking, accounting, teaching—are the bad days. When we fall upon our backsides, several things happen, each of which can work to our benefit.

First, if we’re dedicated, or even if we’re simply plagued by the type of mind that must have causes for every effect, then we eventually do a failure analysis. We figure out What Went Wrong, and how to avoid those factors in the future.

Second, we get back on the horse, try to give another talk, take on another family dinner. We try, try again, and as a result, we value the good experiences for the masterpieces they are. What we took for granted or as a matter of luck and planning, we now know to savor and share for the accomplishment it is.

Third, we become more compassionate, and more broad minded. When we see somebody whose kid is tantruming in the produce section, we no longer think, “That parent had better learn to set some limits.” We think instead, “Oh, you poor dears… This too shall pass.”

soufle fallsIf the chocolate soufflé falls, we’re the ones who say it will still taste delicious with enough ice cream—we develop the ability to solve problems for others as well as ourselves, and this is critical to a sense of confidence. We become good people to know, people who have kindness and wisdom for when others blow a speech, get bad reviews, have a difficult child on their hands, or are suffering marital problems.

Everybody messes up, everybody bites off more than they can chew, everybody gets overwhelmed by circumstances. I hadn’t thought that these experiences were necessary to develop confidence, but upon reflection I suspect they might be.

TheRake2012_150What about you? What role has failure played on the road to your successes?

To one commenter, I’ll send a signed copy of Mary Jo Putney’s classic and much loved, “The Rake,” a story about a man who has allowed failure to drive him to despair, only to find love requires him to hope—and to succeed—once again.




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31 comments on “The Blessings of Failure

  1. I’m the worst in the kitchen! I make the hubby do it! But I’m killer at biting off a lot! I know all about overwhelming too! My friends call me octo-mom because I do 8 things at once 😉 as always, great post Grace!

    • There’s truth in the idea that opposites attract, because if we can appreciate our spouses for their strengths (and they can appreciate us for ours), we’re a stronger unit for having a wider range of abilities.

      If you’ve got eight other things to do, it makes sense Himself might hold down the kitchen jobs. Brilliant cooperation, there, I’d say.

  2. While I wouldn’t consider the last 8 and half years since the twins were diagnosed with autism a failure, they have certainly been a learning experience. I can look back on those first couple of years where I felt like I had no idea what I was doing or if what we were doing was even helping and see how far we have come. I am the first to admit that those first years were some of the hardest of my life, not just with the twins but with my marriage and my feelings of self worth. I was pregnant for part of that first year and only gained 17 pounds with the pregnancy and then I had a newborn baby to take care of along with newly diagnosed twins who were having extreme meltdowns everyday. Sometimes I wonder how I survived. But I did survive and feel like I have come out stronger than I ever thought I was. So much so that when my youngest son was diagnosed with autism last September my first thought wasn’t of how devastated I was but how easy this was going to be compared to the twins. I hope I bring a small measure of comfort to those other mothers who are just starting out in this journey in the therapy waiting rooms when we get to chatting and they can see how far my journey has come when they realize Seth isn’t my first child with autism. I remember hanging on every word of those mothers who were much farther into their journey when I first started with the twins. In fact I still do that with the ones who have teenage boys because we are almost there and as far as we’ve come the teenage years with my twins scares me.

    • Wow, you are an inspiration! What a hard road you have to walk, it’s amazing to see your determination and love in just a short post. I’ll say a prayer for your family, and remember you when I think, “I can’t do this.”

    • Sarah R. you are one awesome lady! I for one have no idea how you’ve managed to cope with so much being laid on you. I’ve never heard of someone having 2 much less 3 autistic children. My youngest first cousin was diagnosed back in ’66 as being autistic and I don’t know how her parents coped as their older two were both in college by then. She went on to learn to sterilize medical instruments and worked in a hospital at one time. I’m sure your boys will grow up to make you proud of them. Good luck and God Bless you and your family.

    • Sarah, one of the many fine folks I’ve come across in my foster care work is a therapist for children, and he’s dealt with many families like yours. With autism, each kid is different, as you well know, and some approaches will work for one but not another. My friend has asked his long term patients what they think has helped the most, and fairly often, they tell him that having somebody–even one person–who knows what they’re going through, who doesn’t think they’re bad people because those meltdowns are hard to take, who gets the fatigue and despair, and can celebrate the victories… that feeling of not being completely isolated with their troubles is what kept them going day to day.

      You are lighting many candles in those waiting rooms. Honest to Pete, YOU SHOULD WRITE A BOOK.

      • Thank you, Katie, Molly and Grace. I try not to complain because I know there are so many people out there worse off than I.
        Grace, You are correct about each child with autism being different. Even with identical twins they are different and there are different approaches we have to take with them. Therapy waiting rooms are my support group because I have never been able to attend any real support groups because of my husband’s work schedule and other factors. I would love for my middle son to have a group to go to for siblings of special needs kids because the older he gets the harder things get with him. Most days my concerns for him far outweigh my concerns for the other 3.
        Before you even wrote this post I had always thought “The Blessings of Autism” would be a terrific title for a book because there truly are so many blessings to raising these amazing boys.

  3. After losing my job after 20+ years, I learned a lot about complacency and humility. It took a long time, but I also learned about letting bitterness and grudges go. These are valuable lessons, and it’s sad that it took me that many decades into my life to learn them. I’m also learning about not sweating the small stuff. But there are still too many things that I continue to do wrong over again. (That saying about doing the same thing and expecting different results equals insanity…) Guess I’m still a major work in process. (I have already read this lovely book.)

    • Bonnie, we’re all works in progress, and I think we let go of the anger when we find something else to sustain us, even as we can’t see what will sustain us until we ease our grip on the anger. Change of any kind is hard, and the bottom line is, you’re in a better place now, and you’re stronger than ever. Go, Bonnie Blue!

  4. For over 30 years, I worked in an office setting or in retail, and for most of those years, both at the same time.
    As my son got older, I decided to turn my life upside down.
    I went to culinary school at the tender young age of 47. In the last 2 years I have had plenty of failures. Failure at cooking, and failure with job choices for which I have paid dearly at my age. If not for all of those failures, I would not have landed by default in the culinary job I have now. I am one of “those” people that believes that everything happens for a reason. I really am where I was meant to end up, because I’m so happy. It’s challenging and rewarding, and I work with great people.
    I won’t even go into the parenting failures I had with my son. But it seems that those really didn’t matter, because he has turned out to be a wonderful young man and I am so proud of him. But those failures, at the time, were the most hurtful.

    • Tracey, I’m not quite as brave as you are in the parenting department. I say I did and do the best I can, and sometimes, that has just not been good enough. Like you, though, I am so proud of my daughter I could about bust.

      Would love to know your favorite brownie recipe. That’s probably like when my mom used to ask me, who practiced the piano hours every day, to just “play something classical”

  5. I don’t look at failures, I call them learning opportunities.I have raised 5 wonderful children and have 6 nearly grown grandchildren so I know about “learning opportunities”.

    • Mary, you surely, surely do. My mom raised seven, and is one of the wisest people I know, when people take the time to listen to her. She also does very well in the self-acceptance category, which I’ve attributed to having her faith on straight, and to the fact that parenting is the hardest and most important job in the world.

  6. I am the type of person that sees failure in everything. Like no matter what I do, in the end I feel like something will always go wrong. But through these failures I learned that I never shied away from trying again. I am able to pick myself up and do it better. Succeeding doesn’t mean its the end and you’ve accomplished it, it just means you’ve passed one step now its on to the next. I have many responsibilities and I can’t give up, no matter how many times I fail.

    • Xoun, I have a lot of what I call “destroyer” energy. I can see the weakest scene in any book, the holes in any legal argument, the “room for improvement” in any accomplishment. A little bit of this energy goes a long way with other people–peeing on parades is not an appreciated skill, but I figure people like me serve an evolutionary purpose.

      We’re the ones who can see where the cougar could leap over the wall; we’re the ones who can see where disaster might strike, and though that’s difficult, it can also be the only thing averting disaster.

      You’re right: Success is relative. As long as you’ve survived to try again, to keep striving, you’re a success in progress

  7. My father was both physically and verbally abusive to me and my four siblings. Since I was overweight I seemed to get more of this negative attention. In fact, he told me I’d better have a good job because nobody would marry me. The verbal abuse is much harder to let go of.

    He passed away from cancer when I was about 29, and being a nurse, I worked ten days in a row and then drove to the other side of the state to take care of him at his home. I’m sure he had regrets by some of the things he said in his final days. I worked on a locked Psych unit and would tell my story if I though it would help to connect to a patient, even though it wasn’t easy.

    I was married the next year and had two little boys. Obviously my boys didn’t know him, but I’ve told them about his actions {both good and bad) and how the negativity hurt me in the hopes that they’ll never do anything in anger that will harm another.

    • Marcy, my mom had to do a psych rotation when she got her RN, and said the work is terrifying and heartbreaking. Given what you put up with growing up, you likely have the fortitude for it, and your compassion for people who cannot find mental health shows that you emerged from your father’s meanness with your whole.
      Good on you. Very, very good on you.

  8. When I retired from work, I had to find something to boost my morale and keep me busy! At first, I didn’t know what to do, but I loved to read! At home, I live in French, I live in Quebec, but when I worked, 90% of my work was done in English. So last year, I switched from reading books in french and started to read them in English and write short reviews. Of course, at first, my review were short but with trial and errors, I can say that I am now satisfied with the reviews I have done. Sometimes I just need a challenge! Now, I am glad to read fluently in English, don’t have to wait too long for the next release. I am proud to be able to do something that I love “reading” and get a certain satisfaction!

    • Nicole, your reviews are a real contribution to readers. What I admire about them is that rather than find fault with a book (and every book has faults), your approach is constructive: The reader who will like this book probably enjoys x, y, and z (witty prose, fast pacing, animals, betas, etc). This gets the book into the most appreciative hands while being honest about its qualities.

      Maybe you’ve found your calling?

  9. At times I’ve bit off more than I could chew, and as a result stayed away from that undertaking because it felt like it just wasn’t right for me, and I’ve accepted that and let it go. At other times I’ve learned from my mistakes but since it was something I really wanted to do, I continued to try and succeeded. I guess it just depends on how much I want something whether I’ll continue to go for it or just decide it’s not for me and let it go. But I always learn from the experience, whether the outcome is what I expected or not.

    • I’ve been overwhelmed frequently, and can’t say I’m as positive about it as you, Barbara. Sometimes, I have to let time go by before I can look at one of those compression phases and ask myself, “How did I let that happen again?”
      When I’m in the middle of it, the analytical approach eludes me.

  10. It seems as if I’ve always struggled to achieve anything; nothing has come easy to me. However, the last 23 years has been anything but kind. Following my divorce where my ex got pretty much everything, I moved to Florida at the urging of my sisters, hoping to land a teaching job. Teachers were being laid off by the hundreds! So I started in retail; after all, my father had his own pharmacy and I worked for him growing up. It was the job from hell! Well, it took five years and a masters degree to get my dream job teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages. That lasted ten years until epilepsy forced me to retire early and become disabled. Now it’s nine years later and I’m still looking for a new path for my life. Could it be the offer I made to set up the new library for my church? Time will only tell.

    • Trudy, that is a hard, hard road you’ve been on. I can see the church library situation growing beyond your own congregation. Many churches have libraries, and no one to organize them or set up a means of managing them. Churches also likely have a connection to the ESOL consumers, and maybe you can make a contribution there as a tutor, if the classroom burden is too great.

      Or there’s writing…. Nora Roberts says you have to read it to write it, and you do read it.

      Your fortitude is amazing. Don’t give up on that new path, or new friends to walk it with.

  11. Somehow failure as a learning tool should be taught to the young. It’s taken me a lifetime to see failures not as the end all but as a great learning experience. The only real failure is in not trying.

    As a simple example I remember wanting to take ballet as a child and would try and try to stand on my toes as I saw them do. I had no idea that besides a lot of hard work, there were special shoes to help them attain that position.

    I think schools set children up for failure. Everything is to get that A or be the brightest and best but not the joy of learning and to keep trying.

  12. Life in general is sometimes hard to take. But being ME I think overcoming one thing a at time per day can be fulfilling.

  13. Jumping off of Catslady comment, the biggest failure I remember came to a head as a judgment from a 9th grade history teacher, voiced in front of the whole class. The embarrassment destroyed my confidence in being able to speak in any type of group for about 20 years. Meanwhile I learned how to speak quietly through my drawings and paintings, getting it “wrong” every time I tried to achieve perfect design, but never stopping in the trying. I soon learned that the errors I made actually increased a sense of authentic voice that was missing in the most carefully crafted of my designs.

    I eventually had to speak in front of 80 elementary school mothers (mostly professional business types), giving them lessons on how to support their children’s creativity instead of squashing it with inappropriately early adult rules. Speaking in front of that group was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done ~ I had major fear that I’d blank out, just as I had done in 9th grade. These were all word people… aaaaa! I created humorous visual prompts to support lightening my mood and then practiced endlessly ahead of time… and ultimately slam-dunked the situation. I laughed when I realized that I had held failure within myself for years for no reason. What a fool I’d been to believe that 9th grade teacher! And yet, his criticism helped me become a much more intelligent person in recognizing the beauty inherent in flawed design, human as well as visual.

    • Since I wrote the above I’ve paid attention to how many failures I’ve had in the last few days. Quite a few, if I judge myself meanly, and one or two big ones if I am kind. Another thing I noticed was that I found myself finding more confidence when I did something really difficult and succeeded in not screwing it up, even though I thought for sure I might fail. So I guess that means living right next to the chance of failure can be confidence boosting. It’s not exactly what you are talking about, but somewhere similar. Thanks for an interesting topic. Please don’t include me in the competition… great book! already have it.

      • Just after I wrote the above I got a knock on the door from my new neighbor, letting me know I failed to turn off a hose… huge flood on the side of the house. We laughed at my goof. Maybe my failure and her effort to correct improved the sense of community between us? At least the path is well watered. (I’m way too wordy again… another failure… will regroup.)

  14. I know there are things I’ve considered failures in my life. But in my professional life but not in my personal life. I take those professional failures are things I tend to look at and say “Well, we won’t do it that way again” and move on. I’m sure I dwell on them at the time but I think I’m pretty good at letting things go and moving on.

  15. Cooking and baking became a much more fun activity when I gave myself permission to fail in the kitchen. But it took years and years, then reading again and again of chefs (Trained Professionals!) taking sometimes 100 attempts to perfect a recipe. Most failures are edible or usable, if not what I conceive in my mind, so it isn’t a complete waste of food. Plus, as I share experiments with friends and neighbors I realize my failure-bar for a dish can be much stricter than the person being given a treat. It is still disheartening when a string of recipes don’t turn out, so I’ll set aside those experiments to the back burner of my mind and make a tried & true dish to revive my confidence. When the recipe won’t let me sleep, or wakes me at 3am dancing about in my mind, I’ll have another go at it.