Are You Moving Away From Failure or Toward Success?

Are You Moving Away From Failure or Toward Success?

I’m an onward-and-upwards kind of person. I appreciate challenges. They’re the salt of life, and nothing beats that feeling of setting a goal and blasting past it, leaving only rubble and conquered foes in your wake (okay, maybe not the rubble and foes part).

Failure? Pfft. I eat failure for breakfast.

But I’m beginning to think maybe that’s a problem.

Are We Focusing Too Much on Moving Away From Failure?

Q and A a Day Five Year Journal Potter StyleTwo years ago for my birthday, my sister (who knows me very well) got me the awesome Q&A a Day 5-Year Journal. Harking back to my addiction to those viral email questionnaires that were spammed back and forth during my teenage years, the journal offers a random question every day of the year–and five slots in which to answer them for the next five years. 

The questions are fun in themselves, but it’s also fun to see how the answers change (or don’t change) from year to year.

One day in September, I was supposed to “Write down a quote for today.” This year, I wrote down the awesome Bruce Lee quote I shared not long ago:

I was not put on this earth to live up to your expectations and you were not put here to live up to mine bruce lee

Then I glanced up to see what I’d written down last year on the same day. It was another good one:

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Nothing wrong with either of those quotes. But, in a somewhat unrelated train of thought, I wondered, Why these quotes? Why this quote engraved on the back on my iPad:

Why this madcap fleeing from failure?

In short, I have this theory that most of us who are caught up in the current meritocracy (fueled largely by commercialism) are consumed with the need not so much to succeed at life (whatever that means) as to simply avoid failing. 

Is Moving Toward Success Any Better?

First of all, let me say that I don’t think there’s anything wrong with wanting to avoid failure. I would really, really like to avoid spilling coffee on my keyboard, accidentally smashing my shopping cart into my parking neighbor’s brand new BMW, or seeing my next book bomb. That’s natural, yes? And avoiding failure is definitely an awesome incentive for, well, survival!

However, putting the focus on moving toward success is obviously a more positive spin. It’s the difference between doing something out of love rather than out of fear. Better still, once we identify what it is, exactly, that we love, we’re also able to better define the surprisingly nebulous concept of success itself.

I love the quite in National Velvet when Velvet’s mother reminds her husband of his own past motivations:

Once, you entered a competition for five shillings, which the headmaster posted for spelling. Was it love of spelling or the love of five shillings?

The love of the end goal–whether it be money, accolades, or something entirely different–is also a masterful catalyst.

Maybe Failure and Success Aren’t Ends

If this all sounds a little nebulous, it’s because… it is. We tend to think of success and failure as absolutes. Either you win or you don’t. There are no participants’ awards in the game of life. And yet, that seems a little back and white to me.

I think of my past failures and my past successes, and there is one thing they all have in common.

They’re in the past.

We never know if we have failed or succeeded until we are right on top of the moment itself–sometimes not until we are already past it. Neither a failure nor a success is ever an end in itself. They are only doorways. We pass through success only to fail. We pass through a failure only to reach a success (or Beckett’s better failure). Either way, we’re always moving. Success is not a destination. Neither is failure. We can’t remain there even if we want to.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be focusing so much on either–lauding ourselves overmuch for a success or believing a failure is stamp of disapproval upon the rest of our lives. Maybe we should just start looking back, using those doorways through which we’ve already passed, and viewing them as signposts for the future–as we keep climbing onward and upward.

Another quote I like that I’ve mentioned recently is, “The struggle is the glory.” Ethelwynn Wetherald takes that idea and turns it into a fight song:

My orders are to fight; then if I bleed, or fail, or strong win, what matters it? God only doth prevail. The servant craveth naught, except to serve with might. I was not told to win or lose. My orders are to fight.

Let’s chat! Do you think society in general focuses too much on the ideas of success and failure? Why or why not? Tell me in the comments!

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  1. Nobody wants to fail, but failure, great and small, happen every day. It’s what we LEARN from that failure that is important. How and why did we fail? What were the root causes of the failure? How can we avoid it in future? Dwelling on failures as such is basically living in the past, dwelling on the reasons for failure is thinking about the future and the successes to come so we can avoid failure again.

    As you say, “They’re in the past.” But the lessons learned from both failures and successes can help us drive ourselves forward to greater successes and smaller failures, both of which we can still learn from and keep driving ourselves forward.

  2. K.M. Weiland says:

    “Dwelling on failures as such is basically living in the past, dwelling on the reasons for failure is thinking about the future and the successes to come so we can avoid failure again.”

    Great way to put it!

  3. I tend to think that most things in life are not about the end result, but about the journey itself.

  4. I don’t think you can ever fail if you are truly happy doing what you do. Then failure just becomes someone else’s opinion. Mistakes are another matter; they’re what we all learn from!

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      I like that mindset. “Success” and “failure” both have feelings of permanence to them, as if they’re the end game, instead of just road stops in an ever-moving journey.

  5. Katie, do you know my friend Marylu Tyndall? I’m sure you do. She is thinking about this same thing this week:

    Great writers think alike.

  6. Terrific post Katie!
    I absolutely agree that society focuses too much on success. It seems the overall message is: you’re successful if you’re rich, beautiful, or a combination of the two, etc. This message is obviously heavily influenced by pop culture of course.

    I could regurgitate some positive points on what we all know about success and failure, but I find myself often having to train my mind to think of failure as “not a bad thing.” And I wouldn’t necessarily say this because, I’m currently overly influenced by my environment, but because I WAS at one time. So, in effect, I am continually learning and reminding myself the importance of failure in my life.

    I know you read that Pixar book, and I really loved what they had to say about failure. In fact, through reading that and reflecting, I’ve come to see that failure is NECESSARY to shape whatever we intend to do with “SUCCESS.” Of course, what is success to you? As far as writing goes, success to me may not be selling my work or being popular or well received by critics. Maybe success to me is asking the question, and feeling positive about the answer: “do you enjoy what you do? And do you do it to your best ability without any regrets?”

    Of course, I fall somewhere in the middle, but anyway…

    I’ve learned to not see failure as a negative thing, but a necessary thing to come to terms with if I am to write my best story. In my latest work that I just finished, I have 30-40 pages of deleted scenes, that aren’t present in the final draft of my work. To me, those were failures to GET ME TO SEE success. And I learned a great deal through the process! 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      Great thoughts! I think we tend to think of “SUCCESS” as some version of life that has been democratically voted as “most popular.” But, really, what is success except the accomplishment of a goal? Whatever that personal goal is will define the nature of the success. The lack of accomplishments outside of the goal represents neutral territory more than it does failure.

      • “…we tend to think of “SUCCESS” as some version of life that has been democratically voted as “most popular.” Aboslutely on the money there! Good stuff!

  7. Doesn’t it depend on what’s at risk? The farmer with 40 acres in production and a large garden/greenhouse behind the house can afford to set aside a small plot to test new varieties and learn from whatever comes of it, as it doesn’t threaten the rest. The farmer who needs, depends on, the produce of their acre to feed the family/survive the winter; failure/success has greater significance.

    There was a story of an organic farmer in Japan who ran multiple tests to figure out how to grow a vegetable called samphire, which is able to grow in saltier soil conditions, his intent being to introduce it to the farmers in the devastated tsunami stricken areas so that they could begin producing cash crops while working to restore their farmland. He was able to experiment and fail whereas the others weren’t, they mostly just struggling to figure out how to rebuild/survive.

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      That’s a good point. I wasn’t thinking so much of life and death successes or failures here. Obviously, if someone starves to death, that’s a non-negotiable “failure” (although I suppose there are still subjective elements to the situation, even then).

  8. This is a really insightful post that has given me a lot of food for thought…

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