To Fail Or Not To Fail

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We all know how popular embracing failure has become, and there are certainly lessons to learn from the craze. With Twitter’s #Fail Whale making all failed tweets “cute,” the social media world has fallen in love with the art of FAIL in the attempt of self-improvement. Even our bosses are encouraged to be more accepting of failure (presumably, they’re supposed to stop expecting excellence all the time). But with our obsession over modern trends, I suggest we don’t overlook the actual value of failure.

The Hasty Rush To Failure

As so many happily rush towards their next failure, many seem to overlook the other side of this. We really shouldn’t strive for failure — it should only be viewed as a last resort. It’s not really a good thing, and it’s not failure we should be embracing — but the lessons learned. Additionally, failure isn’t always acceptable. Great examples of this would be where consequences are catastrophic — lives are lost, or whole economies are destroyed. Of course, lessons can be learned from the most brutal mistakes in history, but it’s best to avoid these failures if possible. Failure is also 100% useless if one doesn’t learn (or truly wish to learn) how to avoid the mistake in future. When we touch the hot stove, our failure of awareness bites us in the rear, which is good if we remember this lesson. It’s useless if we continually repeat it, never improving ourselves. The scolding boss at our job who isn’t keen on constant mistakes is part of that “ouch!” factor — a natural lesson to learn from. Therefore, I don’t feel a lot of the FAIL message we’re getting is quite healthy. Embrace ALL lessons and consequences of our occasional failures as a gift from life, itself, but don’t expect others to necessarily be happy about or understanding of our failures.

I feel it’s worth repeating: the goal shouldn’t be to fail, but to succeed in everything we do, while learning all we can from our failures. This may seem obvious, but with so much emphasis and pride in the fail trend, it seems both success, and the lessons derived from failure, are lost for many in the pro-fail movement. Failure is one of our best teachers, but only if we’re hungry enough to learn.

photo credit: AlmazUK via photopin cc


I photograph headshot and architectural photography for a living, but I also love shooting street photography, abstract architecture and landscapes - more of it lately with my phone. I've had a camera in my hands for the past 20 years, and I currently work for clients in Indianapolis and throughout the Midwest.

  • Having written a book called Failure: The Secret to Success, I must disagree.

    Certainly failure is one of the best teachers. But failure also represents a willingness to take risks.

    We SHOULD be pursing strategies that we are pretty sure won’t work at least some of the time. That sounds crazy, but it’s in fact part of the process of improvement. For example, if you’re part of a committee but you disagree completely with the strategy, consider going along anyway. You might just learn something by doing what you think will go wrong.

    Finally, practically everything starts out as failure. The amateur musician makes terrible noise. The first-time public speaker is incredibly nervous. And as the famous photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson once noted, “Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.”

    • Great points, Robby, and thanks for your comment. Taking risks are part of growth, and I endorse that, but I don’t think actual failure should be the goal, unless we’re re-creating (deconstructing) an error for troubleshooting. Going with all ideas on the table — especially ones sure to fail, is not usually feasible, as time and resources are too limited for most companies. I know both I, and the companies I work with, have to go with what is tested and most certain to work if possible. Intentional blunders are costly. Experiments and strategies sure to fail can present great lessons, but they should be done in beta or in a testing / dev environment. Too many companies DON’T thoroughly test ideas and products before releasing them, figuring failure with their audience might be better.

      The amateur musician you mention should make all the noise they want, but that’s for a practice environment. We have a growing problem in our society with incompetent services and products, and the last thing we need is more Guinea pig testing outside of beta. As well, my post is more about the subliminal message many are likely getting — that failure, itself, is actually more important than success, or the lessons learned from failing — which is the ONLY way failure can help us.

      Thanks again for your thoughts, Robby.