Why Does Failure Exist?

A few weeks ago I listened to a TED talk by Alain De Botton on failure. He posited a very interesting and enlightening perspective on the concepts of failure and success.

Endless Success

It made me consider a child, at an age that they don’t understand failure. Say they start making a sand castle, Lego house, or maybe draw a picture of a mountain. They work hard, squinting, concentrating, causing a creation to come into being. Finally they are done and in the moment, they are successful. They have created.

You or I might look at the sand castle and see that it is just a mound with a stick. The Lego house might be missing a roof. The mountain looks more like a lumpy shape dotted with little lines like a poorly-shaven man’s face. We might think this is not a success, but rather a failure. Of course this is a child and we would kindly tell them they did a great job (with the caveat that this is the first try, they’re only 3, or any number of other thoughts).

This is wonderful, because we want them to keep trying. We know practice builds skill and we encourage through our praise.

Eye of the Beholder

The tragic bit of my consideration here is that the concept of failure doesn’t really play in until this creation is considered by someone else. An uncle, cousin, or friend comes along with maybe a bit less grace that a parent might hope and show how the creation comes up short.

The first time might be a bit crushing – since the child’s mind might have considered this an excellent creation, but now someone they might consider highly – is not impressed.

Birth of Failure

It is at this time that the concept of failure begins to be learned.

Now the child is on the track to experience success and failure throughout life. One hopes that the lessons are gentle, considerate and learned. However, as we go through life, we encounter many other people who might not have been treated so kindly. Many times by mere fortune, they become placed in positions of authority to put these poor lessons into practice, creating unfairness and worse.

It’s a tough world out there, I get that. In our economy and to some degree in our society there are the successful and the failures, but wouldn’t you agree that there seems to be very little room between the two?


Now we come to it. Where the years of good or bad lessons from our success and failure take root – in our minds.

These voices take hold when we’re doing our work, creating, or interacting with other people in the world. They can be brutal – the memories, stark and exaggerated, can be terribly critical. All the while saying the same thing. “Failure.”

What can be Done?

I must say, if you haven’t listened to the TED talk I spoke about – you really should. De Botton does a much better job of this part than I can, but I can take a good run at it.

Change our thinking about the relationship between hard work and success. The hardest workers aren’t always successful. Nor are the laziest people always failures. We can’t judge people because we simply don’t know their circumstance. Changing this mindset and how we look at the world can inform how we criticize ourselves.

We have to teach people to not take things so personally. Externalize the work from the individual. Recognize the hard work that went into it without judging the work itself. If criticism is asked for, give it. Present it with measures of praise for some concepts and gentle criticism of others. Especially for the young and even adults who are sensitive to criticism due to a lifetime of really harsh failure lessons.

Accept that we cannot be successful at everything we put ourselves to. Succeeding in one area often means neglecting others. This helps to compartmentalize what success means. One who is an accomplished surgeon might find themselves to be a lousy woodworker. Does that make them a success or a failure?

Consider that in more broad terms like creating a successful work-life balance. De Botton claims it’s not possible, and I tend to agree. You cannot be simultaneously a successful world-renown speaker AND parent to an adolescent. Just from a time and engagement perspective you are probably not going to do one of those two as well as someone who is able to put more of their efforts into one or the other. At some point you must make a choice, to elevate one above the other. Clinging to the failure concept makes this scenario very sad, so we must change how we look at it.

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[…] mentioned before in another post about Alain DeBotton’s TED talk where he discusses Failure¬†and how remarkable it was to listen to his take on it. In Mindset, there is a similar approach, […]

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