Last week I wrote about a new definition of success, one that “doesn’t try to avoid failure, but embraces and learns from it. In order words, we need to become more successful at failing.” But I feel like whenever we hear the word failure, it sends a shiver down our spine, as if a hipster had just winked at you. It’s a chilly, terrifying feeling.
We have generally viewed success and failure as two mutually exclusive outcomes, and we’re stuck in the middle.
Success – You – Failure
This doesn’t have to be the case though; failure can lead to success. Try on this new paradigm.
You – Failure – Success
Sweet! It actually works out pretty well. Here’s an example from my own life. I became an honors student beginning in the fifth grade. I transferred schools in order to take accelerated classes. This lasted up to the 8th grade, when I took Honors English. It was a challenging class. The teacher, Mrs. Pearson, was really smart but strict. When I received my report card at the end of the quarter, I learned that Mrs. Pearson gave me a C+.
I was freaking out and thought my parents were going to kill me. I imagined all of the horrible things that would happen. My parents would toss me down a hole with a copy of Beowulf until I had memorized all of the lines and metaphors. If I didn’t, they would spray me. “It gets an A or else it gets the hose.”
“Mom! This is ridiculous. I’m tired, wet and hungry. Let me out of here!” My C+ got me kicked out of honors. I was kicked out! I don’t know if any Asian-American, in the history of Asian America, has ever been kicked out of honors. It was a nightmare.
Which brings me to my point this week; failure cannot be avoided. We all fail, it is inevitable. But rather than view failure as a weakness that must be avoided at all costs, we need to turn it into a stepping stone on our path toward success.
Here are five ways you can turn failure into success (and not fail in the process).
1. It’s a challenge, not a weakness: About a month ago our Executive Director left the organization after nine wonderful years. If you had asked me my opinion a year ago, I would have freaked out and thought the zombie apocalypse was coming. “Quick! Make sure we have extra arrows and bullets. We need to survive!!!” Losing an influential, experienced, and vegan leader can be a terrible setback for some organization or companies. But rather than see this as a weakness that we should hide, our board of directors reached out for support, advice and took their time to conduct a thorough assessment of our organization’s needs. It’s been a month now and we expect to hire a new ED in October…ish, which means I can go shoeless for a couple more months.
2. Positive thinking: Being busy has become the de facto conversation starter in America. “How are you doing?” “I’m busy.” I absolutely can’t stand this. Every time we do this we actually normalize busyness; it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The same applies to success and failure. Small changes in the way we think about failure will lead to big changes in the way we act. “So what if our vegan-munching Executive Director left; no big deal. Our organization is now 100% carnivorous!” Other ways you can utilize positive thinking are:
- “Taxes! An easy way to serve my country.”
- “Immigrants! Save money on vacationing abroad. They bring really amazing culture and delicious food to us!”
- “Student loans! I just spent 4-10 years receiving an world class education and partying in my spare time, all without the responsibilities of a 9-5 job. Nice, I like.”
- “Car accident! Summer is a great time to get the bike out.”
3. Celebrate Failure: I once described how I was invited to meet with a funder about a grant that we applied for. When we arrived, they told us we didn’t get the grant and proceeded to give us feedback. It was awful; I wasted my entire morning when a phone call or email would have sufficed. Plus, they didn’t even validate my parking. Downtown is expensive! Afterward my colleagues and I went to happy hour to commiserate. We decided if this ever happens again, someone is going to get punched in the gut. It never happened again. Sometimes things don’t go your way. And sometimes the news you get feels terrible. Even when it catches you off guard, it’s important not to let it ruin your day. Besides, we would have never enjoyed $3 mimosas if we had gotten the grant.
4. Quit lying to yourself: After undergrad, I applied to many phd programs and was rejected by five different universities. I felt like a total failure and thought my parents would surely throw me in a hole for this: “It gets it’s phd or else it gets the hose.” I should have taken the hint then and there. Instead, a few years later I applied again, this time to four schools and, once again, didn’t get accepted. I took this as a sign; the universe doesn’t want me to go to grad school. Either that, or I’m not as smart as I thought I was (this is the likelier explanation). Rather than seeing this as a failure, take a step back and treat it like a new opportunity. Now I work in for a community organization and my life couldn’t be better! See what I did there? Use strategy 2, positive thinking.
5. Stop taking advice from successful people: As human beings, we’re always trying to emulate other people. When David Beckham drank Pepsi, I wanted to drink Pepsi. When Oprah reads a book, I want to read it too. When Emma Stone used Revlon Colorburst Crayon lipstick on her lips, so did I. And I looked great. But we need to stop asking for advice, and start asking feedback. Taking advice from other “successful” people helps you become more like them. Getting feedback about your failures helps you become more like you. Feedback is important; it allows you to get a different perspective and learn from your mistakes.
To summarize, I remember watching an episode in the last season of Lost. One of the characters, Jacob, is having a philosophical discussion about good and evil with his brother, The Man in Black, who turned out to be a giant smoke monster.
Jacob believes that mankind is good and tries to prove this by leading small groups of people to the Island time and again. The Man in Black however thinks that mankind is bad and has to be punished: “They come. They fight. They destroy. They corrupt. It always ends the same.”
Jacob responds, “It only ends once. Everything else that happens is just progress.” That scene really resonates with me. I view success the same way. You only need to succeed once. Everything else – failures, challenge, weaknesses, losing – is just progress.
After getting kicked out of Honors English, I worked my butt off an got put into AP Lit by high school. The rest is history; became the most successful Asian American blogger of our time… You see? More positive thinking!