Secret of Adulthood: Succeed by Failing

From Further Secrets of Adulthood.

I try to see failure as a necessary aspect of success. Which is easier said than done.

For instance, I often remind myself to Enjoy the fun of failure. This catchphrase has made a huge difference to me. I’m very ambitious and want to succeed at everything I try, and that makes me very anxious—which isn’t a creative frame of mind.

Telling myself that I can enjoy the “fun of failure” has made me (somewhat) more light-hearted about taking risks. As G. K. Chesterton wrote, “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.”

I also tell myself, “If I’m not failing, I’m not trying hard enough.”

I want to see failure as a necessary and acceptable part of a fun, ambitious, creative career. As an Upholder, that can be tough, because when I set out to do something, I really want to met that expectation for myself. So I try to expand my expectations for myself to include failure, as odd as that sounds.

Someone once said to me, “Don’t call it failure! Re-frame it!” At first, I thought that sounded like a good idea, then I realized — no. I don’t want to pretend a failure away; I don’t want to gild it up; I want to acknowledge and even welcome failure.

How about you? How do you think about failure? Can you stretch your definition of success to include failure, so that you can succeed by failing?

Other posts you might be interested in . . .

  • HEHink

    There’s a scene in the Disney Pixar movie Meet the Robinsons where the character Louis tries to fix the Robinsons’ contraption that is supposed to create the perfect proportion of peanut butter and jelly for a sandwich. After PB & J flies everywhere, the whole family applauds him, exclaiming “That was an amazing failure!” When Louis expresses bewilderment, one of his wacky aunts says, “From failure, you LEARN! From success…not so much.” The overriding theme of the movie to “Keep Moving Forward” rises out of this moment. It’s a scene I can’t help recalling when I think about “the fun of failure.”

  • As a musician, I have often experienced this whilst playing my 2 instruments. But without falling there is no learning…

  • I just lettered this and posted it on my instagram: … Great minds think alike, perhaps! 🙂

  • Melissa Thompson

    I have told my children to make new mistakes everyday!

  • Natalie

    I can’t believe I’m going to say this, as I hate sport, but here is a metaphor from cricket. (Cricket, if you haven’t seen it, is I think in many ways similar to baseball.) One of the ways for a batsman to get “out” is when running between the wickets, not making it back to your crease in time and the fielding team getting the ball there first. Your team’s innings is over when ten batsmen get out. I think that if you don’t have at least 2 or 3 batsmen getting “run out”, then they aren’t taking enough risks. If you go through a whole innings with everyone getting out other ways but no run-outs, then they are obviously playing it too safe and could probably have made more runs for their team by taking a few more risks.
    Life is like that. You are going to “get out” eventually anyway. Are you going to play it safe your whole life and not achieve anything?

  • Penelope Schmitt

    Every time I make a quilt I fail to some extent to realize my inner vision for it — even if it is just a simple little scrap throw. But I also get better and better at what I do each time, so that my visions are more ambitious and my attempts more graceful. I have NEVER failed to have a lot of fun making a quilt. You just have to keep learning from your mistakes. You WILL fail if you don’t try.

  • Michael J.

    I read recently, all you really know is the feedback you’ve experienced from your actions. Everything else is just theory.

  • Andrea

    A couple of years ago, I read the book “The Geography of Bliss” by Eric Weiner. (I highly recommend it if you haven’t read it yet, a very interesting read). One of the things that struck me when I read the chapter on Iceland — one of the happiest countries on Earth — was that the hypothesized reason for why people in Iceland are generally happy is their ready acceptance of failure. It sometimes seems to me that failure is only accepted in U.S. culture *after* it has been followed by great success.

  • Jen

    Failure is a hard one to accept. It’s like exercise. In the midst of it – it’s horrible but the benefits of going the extra mile to overcome the seemingly impossible is rewarding in so many ways.

  • Louisa Rogers

    One of my favorite quotes on failure:

    “So you think that you’re a failure, do you? Well,
    you probably are. What’s wrong with that?…You must have learned by now that we pay just as
    dearly for our triumphs as we do for our defeats. Go ahead and fail. But
    fail with wit, fail with grace, fail with style. A mediocre failure is
    as insufferable as a mediocre success. Embrace failure! Seek it out.
    Learn to love it. That may be the only way any of us will ever be free.”

    Tom Robbins, Even Cowgirls Get The Blues

    • Laura

      Thank you for posting this – I had completely forgotten about this book. I read it when I was in high school in the 1980s, and remember this passage vividly – I copied it down into my “quote book” which is now boxed up in the attic.
      Reading this brought back such great memories and inspiration.

  • Dianne Ochiltree

    Most of us are taught that failure is the worst thing that could happen to us. Failure is to be avoided at all costs. This leads to some unhappy, self-limiting decisions to be made. Therefore, I constantly remind myself that failure is indeed my very best friend. Risking failure helps me grow in ways ‘playing it safe’ cannot. And this so-called safety zone is indeed no guarantee for success. The only thing it can guarantee is staying the same.

  • Happy Maggy

    This is really a good article about success and failure. It’s true that failure is the evidence that we are trying hard in something. It’s just hard to see it as something necessary to reach success. But, from now I will see failure with more positive feelings thanks to this article! I’ve just started a humble website about happiness and positive thinking related article. Feel free to visit 🙂

  • Mimi Gregor

    “Success is going from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.” — Winston Churchill

  • Lford

    I wish I had the courage to be “terrible” more often. Recently read an interview with Nicole Kidman in January Elle. She talks about “going for it” in her acting and trying many different things to get into a character. It’s all exploration from her point of view. Her father, a psychiatrist,
    encouraged her to feel all of her humanity – including that we can’t master things right away- regardless of our innate talent. After the failure you might find something more wonderful than you would have without it. I love how Gretchen’s blog encourages one to think about being human. It’s complicated and I for one can use all the help I can get. I will let myself ” fail” at something today! I will look at some work in my studio that I think is awful and try and reframe it as just a step in a direction I’ve yet to fully explore.

  • I feel that without failure, there is no success. Failure means you’ve tried something. And trying something is better than nothing because it means that you are living. I’ve learned more in my life from failure: failed relationships, being fired from a job, not passing a test in school, even small things like my craft not coming out quite right, I’ve learned something. I think failure is a necessary, although unfortunate, part of life.

  • Cindy

    “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
    — Thomas Edison
    Enjoy those failures!

  • Randee Bulla

    One of my favorite books is called “Mastery” by George Leonard. It’s there I learned about the philosophy of practice to mastery and adopted it as my main mantra. I let go of trying to be perfect, and just started focusing on the feeling of practicing, whether it be running, managing people, developing friendships, cooking, finance, and other areas where I felt boxed in by not allowing myself to fail. In return, I now usually really enjoy the process or moment in front of me and do the best I can and as a result have found I’ve grown so much in most of these areas. Running…not so much haha, but at least I love it again.

  • Ever notice that when you go roller skating, there’s always one person who’s either clutching the side of the rink or causing a ten-skater pileup after still another wipeout? That’s me.

    To say I’m not a natural at the sport might qualify for a world record in understatement. So naturally, I love it. Every bit of coordination and even IQ has to go into staying upright. Any problems I have before I lace up just seem to… fall away. I’m terrified and totally relaxed, at once.

    I suck at roller skating, but I love it! And according to my daughter, this is one of the sweetest things she’s ever learned from me.

  • Meg Clare

    My my Gretchen, you make it all sound like so much work. “If you aren’t failing you aren’t trying hard enough”? Hooey. Its all just a matter of trial and error and like any piece of artwork there is a time to stop, just stop and let it be, whether success or failure it is what it t is and its time for the artist to move on.

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  • Regina

    Why so black and white about success vs. failure? I view most of life as partial successes; I try to keep the parts that worked, change the parts that didn’t work, and learn from both. I love the Churchill quote, and I would add one more, although I don’t know the source: “When you lose the battle, don’t lose the lesson.”

  • Deborah Hall

    There’s a brilliant essay by Ann Patchett in her most recent collection of essays “The Story of a Happy Marriage.” She describes the challenges of writing, the recognition that she will almost always fall short of producing the work she imagined, or desired. But she has learned the necessity of “forgiving” herself. This, she says, is the most important quality to possess, for any writer, for anyone striving to create. Forgiveness is key.

  • When I was younger, I used to believe that if you don’t try, you can’t fail. Now I know that not trying is a bigger failure than trying and failing. You can learn something if you try and fail and then use what you have learned to improve. If you don’t try, you “learn” nothing of value, except guilt and possibly shame if you internalize it.

    My secret of adulthood, learned the hard way, is this:

    “The only way around is through and the only way through is the high road”

    Part 1: When things get rough, I’m always looking for the easy way out. Unfortunately, that’s rarely an option, particularly when others are depending on me. Instead, it’s best to persevere and change my attitude by reframing the situation.

    Part 2: When the goal or the path is unclear, I find it difficult to put forth my best effort. However, if I don’t, I may end up hurting myself more than anyone else. It’s better to do what I believe is the right thing even if it turns out not be what is needed. At least, I will have no regrets and I (and others around me) won’t have to suffer the consequences of a haphazard effort.

    Hopefully one day I will be able to tell my story and how I arrived at my own secret of adulthood. 🙂