“What have you failed at today?” This question is one that a friend’s father used to ask her and her brother every day at dinner. After getting over the awkward wording, I found the story inspiring. This question, and her father’s warm approach in how he asked it, contained so many positive questions and affirmations:
- What did you try today?
- How did you challenge yourself?
- I love you when you risk and fail.
- Don’t be afraid of failure.
- I’m interested in your efforts, not just your successes.
Failure is at the heart of success. We need to understand our failures and be comfortable with them. Be willing to learn from them, explore them, and move toward the potential of failure.
The Taboo of Failure
It’s easy to shy from failure and even the word “fail.” You don’t fail at a school test—you “don’t meet expectations.” Maybe you “need improvement” in the application of your skill. Perhaps you “did not pass” your rank examination. You may have to “try again” to pass that level.
These reframings of failure aren’t necessarily incorrect. It is vital to “fail forward”, to recognize that few failures are disasters, or steps backward. You learn from failure, gain from failure—it is an inevitable and necessary part of growth and true learning. The goal of reframing is to try to guide someone toward trying again. However, there is a danger in allowing the idea of failure to become taboo. To act like our egos are so fragile that we need to avoid the concept of failure altogether and try to shield ourselves from even the word. Why not fail and learn?
Don’t Beat Yourself With Failure
Another important aspect of this family story is that the nature of the question was not accusatory or defeating. When we are uncomfortable with failure then we can more easily use it as a tool of self-harm. But at the heart of this question is celebration: “I dared to fail today!” This is not an accounting of how you “are a failure.” Quite the opposite: it is an accounting of how you “are someone who dares.”
Trying and failing will never be without emotional stress. The important thing is normalizing that stress for ourselves and others. It is normal to fail. It is normal for failure to feel crappy. And it’s a natural and necessary part of learning and growing.
So lets move toward (and through!) failure together. What have you failed at today?