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.