What is failure? The question has engaged me to and fro for a long time, and I have had this basic instinct that failure is not a bad thing, that in fact it has to be a really good thing, for a couple of different reasons.
First, failure is information-rich. When we fail we are forced to examine our assumptions to find out what assumptions did not work out the way we thought they would. Failures teach us about the task at hand, they contain feedback and data that allow us to understand something in a deeper, and more meaningful way. In fact, understanding is produced by failure in a sense.
Second, failure tests your resolve. It provides you with a measure of how committed you are to the work at hand. Is it worth it? We all have a limit at which we throw our hands up and go “not anymore!”. That limit, the failure limit, is in a very real sense the measure of how much we want something. (Now, this is a simplification, as in many cases failure is something brings pause to us, helps us take a break, and then when we come back we continue. Persistence is, funnily enough, discrete).
Third, failure is a great way of finding out who is your friend and who is just a fairweather companion. Fail rigorously and the social connections around you will change. And I do not think it is because people are evil, it is simply because we have different reasons for being friends. Aristotle points to utiltarian friendship as completely acceptable, a friendship based on common interests, mutual utility, is not a bad friendship – but maybe you would want to know that this is what it is, and not the deep friendship that Aristotle points to as the most fulfilling and rewarding of all relationships.
Fourth, pay attention to the way something fails. The way a building breaks, the way an organization messes up, the way your team misses an important task or figures something out just to late – those data points are invaluable. If you really want to understand how something works, study how it breaks down, how it fails.
All of this seems to point as failure as great way of learning, and maybe we should do away with the notion of failure overall. Maybe what we should do is simply replace the word “failure” with the word “learning.”
Now, I don’t think all of this should be painted in too rosy a color. There are catastrophic failures that mean the end of a dream, the closing of a window of opportunity or simply the break-down of something that cannot be repaired, cannot be redeemed. Those failures too teach us, not only about the limits of our will, but the limits of our endurance. And naturally there are personal failures that will forever be marks of shame in our minds, flaws on our character. Yes, they provide you with an opportunity to learn, but they also provide you with a scar that never fades. We are, in a very real way, the sum of such failures. While our successes may well fade, our catastrophic failures never fade away, even though we learn to live with them.
Philosopher and theologian Karl Jaspers allegedly said at some point that failures are ciphers from God. Every failure questions you – and your reply determines who you choose to be.