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.


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