In Praise of Failure

By Tullio Orlando, Executive Director, Caritas

 I admire Thomas A. Edison. He was a prolific American inventor (with a Canadian connection – his father was from Marshalltown, Nova Scotia no less!) and held 1,093 U.S. patents in his name. His ingenuity and vision revolutionized our social world and propelled us into the future – or in the very least, helped us see significantly better in the dark.

No one would call him disenchanted by any stretch of the imagination. Yet, he had this to say about letdowns: “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.” Where would we be today if forward thinkers simply shrugged their shoulders or kicked at sand and just walked away from their aspirations? It’s through the painful lessons learned through mistakes, trial and errors that we make our way through to completing our goals. Rarely does anything happen correctly the first time out; and if it does, it’s cause for worry because life just doesn’t work that way. If it’s too good to be true it most likely isn’t.

Failure is life’s teacher. It causes disappointment, low morale, and a certain comfort with which to give up. Failure guides us down the wrong path with our rationalization that something that comes with required sacrifice, pain, and some measure of effort isn’t worth working for. Why should it? Such folks who make the argument, that inventions and technological advances people like Edison brought to fruition were intended to make our lives easier, without sacrifice, pain, or effort miss the point. Every notable achievement has a history of some form of failure in backdrop. True meanings are wrapped with the struggles to arrive at a point where others get to experience the benefits of these achievements that make them profound.

Failures sharpen the skills we’re not mystically bestowed upon with at birth. We learn through our mistakes and take comfort in knowing we’re not perfect. Our flaws humanize us and create opportunities for change and betterment. Failures help define who we are about to become because they provide a blueprint to make a better person out of ourselves in avoiding repeating mistakes of the past. Defeats don’t have to be crushing failures in a world that increasingly values resiliency and origination and sadly, continues to devalue failure rather than celebrating perseverance.

We need to embrace failure and look upon it as key to success rather than a roadblock. If we rarely experience defeat how can we learn to endure and better ourselves? While it’s all good to speak about defeat the status quo remains on the double standard that heralds messages around screw-ups. The mixed message is that we’re told its okay to mess up and that we’ll learn from them yet, most praise and celebration is given for perfection. We talk a great deal about taking risks but in practice our tolerance for it is quite low. The process that occurs in getting to the success is given little recognition in our culture.

It’s time we change that view. It’s a lesson best learned early that we can bounce back from defeat, dust ourselves off, and try again. I should know – this is my third attempt at writing this piece. Perfection is in the eye of the beholder … or something like that.