Some thoughts on failure

A couple people I look up to have posted their thoughts on failure recently (Edwin M Sarmiento: Failure is mandatory, Joe Webb: AT Lesson #9: Take care of yourself and your team), here’s what I think.  I’m going to fail.  Small mistakes and big ones, failure happens.  To think otherwise is simply foolish pride.

Speaking of foolish pride, here’s a story of one of my many spectacular failures.

I was 16 and I had just completed my basic EMT (Emergency Medical Technician) training.  At the time (the late 80’s) it was pretty unusual for someone to do this when they were 16.  I did it because my buddy Ryun did it and I figured if he could do it, I could do it better.  You can read more about this story here.  I bring this up not to celebrate that success (to this day one of my proudest accomplishments), but to set the stage for one of my first (and biggest) failures.  A couple months after completing my EMS training I was scheduled to sit for the Michigan state EMT certification test.  I went somewhere far away to take the test (Maybe Saginaw MI, but I can’t remember anymore).  I got up early, drank a lot of soda and drove a long time to get there by 9am.  I don’t remember a lot of details, I think I did OK on the written and practical tests … it’s fuzzy now.  The thing that stands out in my mind is that I failed the CPR test.  Of all the skills I prepared for, practiced, obsessed over … I had totally overlooked CPR.  I figured it was easy, I knew it. I skipped it.  I failed.  I not only failed the CPR section of the certification test, I ended up failing the test completely.

I was devastated.  I took a day or two to feel sorry for myself, then I did something that would become maybe one of the best things I ever did for myself.  I decided not only to master CPR (and all the other skills I needed to become certified), but I would teach 100 CPR classes for the Red Cross to cement that skill forever.  I created a pattern out of despair and humiliation that would serve me well to this day.  Put simply, when I fail I make the choice not to take it personally.  I take failure seriously, but not personally.  I decided that failing a test does not make me a failure, it just gives me something new to master.  It wasn’t until years later that I learned the equally difficult lesson that just because I might succeed in some test or challenge, I am not a winner.  I failed, but I am not a failure.  I succeeded, but I am not a success.  I don’t define myself by failure OR by success.  I define myself by the effort I put out every day to improve.

That might sound profound (or maybe trite) … but it’s not entirely original.  I learned a lot about overcoming fear (and failure) from the book ‘The war of art‘ by Stephen Pressfield.  If you haven’t read it do yourself a favor and order it today.  It’s a game changer.

3 Comments

  1. I love this quote, Tim: “I take failure seriously, but not personally.”

    Thanks for sharing the story. Sounds like it was one of those defining moments in life. I’m glad you recognized it for what it was.

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