Like most people, the highway of my life is strewn with the wreckage of my numerous failures. When I was a younger man, I looked at failure as a matter of disgrace and resented each failure. While I sometimes engaged in the shameful practice of shifting the blame to others, I learned to accept the wisdom of Confucius, namely that when the archer misses the target he should seek the cause within himself. Or, as this is expressed in the West, it is a poor craftsperson who blames his tools.
While I still regard failure as potentially disgraceful and worthy of resentment, I have learned to have a somewhat more developed view of the matter. After all, while I must bear the responsibility for my failures and they are most often entirely my fault, a failure need not be a matter of disgrace. Most obviously, if I have done the best that I could have done and still met with failure, then there is no disgrace in this. No more could have been expected of me, for I did all that I could possibly do. There are, of course, challenges that we face that are beyond us—what matters in such cases is not that we have failed, but that the challenge has been justly and bravely faced. After all, to fail well can be better than to succeed poorly or wickedly. Perhaps it could even be argued that a noble failure is a form of success.
One thing that repeated failures have taught me is that there will be more failures. On the one hand, this view can easily lead to despair: if we can be sure that the road ahead will also be littered with the wreckage of failures, should we not greet this future with tears and lamentations at our fates? On the other hand, this view can lead to confidence and hope: have we not survived the wrecks that litter our pasts? Have we not had victories as well? Surely, there shall be more victories in the future and the failures shall be endured as they have before.
Another thing that my repeated failures have taught me is that failure is just another chance to succeed. For example, when I was in high school, I decided that I wanted to be on a sports team. Since basketball was a prestige sport and I had played before, I have it a try. I was awful and after one of the tryouts, the coach said to me “we have an important position for you. We need a manager.” I said, “Coach, I need to do a sport.” He replied, “Go out for winter track. They have to take everyone.” I went to the track practice the next day, wearing my basketball sneakers.
I found that track had its own tryouts—the coach tested everyone’s abilities to see how well a person could jump, sprint, or throw. It turned out that I could jump seven feet forward from a standing start, but could not long, triple or high jump worth a darn. I was also found to be unsuitable for sprinting, hurdling and throwing. So, I ended up where people without any talent in the prestige events ended up—I was slotted to be a distance runner.
Being in poor shape, the practices were tough. By throwing up, I learned to not eat before I ran. By having my feet torn up and bloodied by the basketball shoes, I learned I needed to get better shoes. I was a poor runner my first season and a poor runner in the spring track season that followed. However, by the time cross country arrived, I could run without throwing up and without bringing shame to my ancestors.
When I went off to college, I stuck with running and went all-conference in cross country. I am still a runner today. Without my failure at basketball, I might have never become a runner—so, I owe my success to that failure.
As a second example, when I was in college I thought that I was a good writer, so I sent off some of my work to a game company. I received a brutal rejection letter in reply. I kept at it, earning a stack of rejection letters. However, one day I got the letter I had been waiting for—my work had been accepted. I did the same thing in philosophy—earning a stack of rejections before earning a publication.
Lest anyone think that I am a Pollyanna, I will say that I have encountered defeats that seem to still remain as failures—aside from the lessons learned from them, of course. But even in those cases, I did succeed at learning to not fail in that way again. Also, I recognize that there can be failures that put an end to all opportunities for success—that is, failures that are complete failures. However, saying “failure is just another opportunity for success, except when it is not” does not have the same appeal as the original.