Redefine Failure: How Its Conventional Meaning Is Killing Your Dreams

Failure hurts. It’s an unpleasant feeling, but a necessary experience if you want to live a fulfilling life. The problem is, most people believe in the “wrong” definition of failure. This belief stabs people’s dreams right in the heart. It paralyzes people and the only way to stop it from committing murder-suicide is to redefine failure.

Why Redefine Failure?

Society defines failure as a “lack of success.” Meaning, if you set some goals and fail to hit them, you failed. If you missed the trophy, didn’t bring home the bacon, weren’t first place, you’re a failure. But this conventional definition is not only misleading, it’s flat-out flawed.

Seeing failure this way is crippling because you won’t always get what you want. Just because you tried doesn’t guarantee a win. And just because you worked hard, pulled an all-nighter, doesn’t mean people will value the work you do.

Result is never promised to hard work. Doing something hard one time will likely change your life. Result is promised to continuous hard work. Intensity is not an alternative to consistency.

There Are Two Ways To Look At Failure

Redefine Failure - Success is a fork in the road

The first way is to see it as a fork in the road: failure on one side and success on the other side. If you stop doing “failure” things and do more “success” things, you’ll be successful.

Failure ThingsSuccess Things
Watch TVRead books
Talk about other people Talk about ideas
Go with the flow Create visions, goals, and plans
Thinks they know it allHungry for learning
Fear changeEmbrace change
And so on…And so forth… 

I used to look at success and failure this way but all it did was make me feel miserable if I weren’t doing “success” things. It left me feeling behind, pressured, and stuck in life because I wasn’t always productive. I needed a metaphorical punch in the throat to realize that there’s another way to look and redefine failure.

A healthier, more useful way.

Success Is On The Other Side Of Failure

Redefine failure - success is on the other side of failure

There’s nothing wrong with doing “success” activities, it helps. The only problem with the first model is this: just because you did “success” things, doesn’t guarantee you’ll achieve your goals. The promise lies in continuous hard work towards your goal. It means, you must first go through the challenges, failures, and heartbreaks before getting your dreams.

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But even when you put in the work, it’s possible to miss the target. Diet and exercise doesn’t guarantee immunity to illness. It does, however, promise a healthy body, which is a vehicle to prevent sickness. Marketing your products doesn’t guarantee sales. But unless you market, you won’t get any.

Failure isn’t about missing the mark. It’s about not putting in the effort. 

The $75 Million “Almost” Failure

Theodor Seuss Geisel was one of the most prolific and successful children’s book authors of all time. He wrote 60 books, some of which are now adapted into movies, successful ones at that. One of which is Horton Hears A Who! which was released in 2008 and grossed almost $300 Million worldwide. His name? Dr. Seuss.

What you may not know is that Dr. Seuss experienced a series of ups and downs in his career. In fact, his first book, And to Think that I Saw It on Mulberry Street, was rejected 27 times before getting published. He was so heartbroken that he actually planned on burning the manuscript.[*]

It was a chance encounter that saved Dr. Seuss’s book and career. The day his manuscript was rejected for the 27th time, he bumped into a long-time friend, Mike McClintock. Mike had just accepted a job with Vanguard Press as the editor in their children’s section. You can argue that it’s pure luck. But you don’t persist through 27 failures without redefining it.

Redefine Failure - Dr. Seuss's Oh, the Places You'll Go!

Dr. Seuss didn’t wait for things to happen, because you can’t wait for 27 tries. He knew that success is on the other side of failure. And as he once wrote…

And will you succeed? Yes! You will, indeed! (98 and ¾ percent guaranteed.) Kid, you’ll move mountains!

Dr. Seuss

Though grief-stricken after his first wife committed suicide, he had his most prolific years later between the late 1950s until the 1980s. He published two to three books and produced one book each year. At the end of his life, he published 60 children’s books and died with a net worth of $75 Million.

How To Reframe Failure

Instead of equating failure with missing a goal, there are three better and more useful ways to think about it. 

Failure Means Not Trying

Not trying is worse than falling short of your goals. Every four years, there are thousands of athletes who want to win an Olympic Gold Medal. But only one will. They practice and try their best in each training session. But not winning doesn’t mean they failed. The failures are the ones who could’ve been, but never did.

Sara Blakely, founder of Spanx recalls his father encouraging her to try new things. And when she fails, they celebrate it and find hidden gems (of learning) in it. Because of this, she started a Billion Dollar company. Don’t just celebrate your victories, celebrate your failures, too. Watch what she says about failure below.

Here’s the thing: it’s easier to do nothing, be off the hook, and be a “non-failure.” Not succeed, not fail, but to stay in the middle “no man’s land” of non-failure. Because doing something worthwhile, something that makes you come alive requires courage.

  • To start a business on the side requires courage
  • To save up and prepare to quit your toxic job, you need guts
  • Standing up for what you believe in, you gotta be brave

Don’t be afraid to try. And when you fail, try again. 

Failure Is About Not Growing

The reason to try isn’t to achieve, but to grow. You and I are not here to be happy. If that were true, then we should throw everything aside and pursue happiness. We should choose to do things that are easy, fun, and enjoyable. Sacrificing long-term consequences for short-term happiness should be okay.

But we know that isn’t true. The human experience isn’t designed for happiness – it’s designed for fulfillment. That’s why if you’re not making progress (or at least feel like it), you will never be truly happy. No matter what “hacks” or “technique” you practice, it will be nothing but a band aid.

If you redefine failure as not growing, you’ll focus on learning things every day. You won’t settle for what you know and for the status quo. My guess is you know this already since you’re a growth-seeker. But a reminder won’t hurt.

As the philosopher Eric Hoffer once said, “In times of change, learners inherit the earth. While the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.”

Failure is getting beautifully equipped for a world that no longer exists.

Failure Means Non-Response

In the book, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey shared about the Habit of Proactivity. It means not waiting for things to happen. In short, taking responsibility for your life and how you influence the things that happen to you.

Look at the word responsibility—“response-ability”—the ability to choose your response. Highly proactive people recognize that responsibility. They do not blame circumstances, conditions, or conditioning for their behavior.

Stephen Covey

It’s helpful to consider non-response as failure – to do nothing on things you can do something about. Let’s take work as an example. I see a lot of people suffering from a toxic work environment and who want to quit their job. Now, quitting a job is never easy. But there are steps anyone who’s committed to quitting can take.

  • Evaluate your part in that toxic environment (e.g. do you stand for yourself when someone bullies you? Did you think of ways to make your work exciting?)
  • If you did everything you can to make it work:
    • Are you saving up so you can have the money to survive for the next couple of months?
    • Have you tried applying for a new job?
    • Can you work on the side to save money faster?
  • Did you talk to your boss about your situation?

You don’t control the majority of what’s happening outside your life. What you can control is how you respond to them. If you’ve done everything you can, what’s happening is not on you. But if you stay there without doing anything, it’s time to reevaluate what you do. I’m not saying you should quit immediately, but have an accurate grasp of what’s happening in your life.

Your Definitions Matter

However you define success and failure dictates your actions and inaction. Whether you hold onto the old, conventional definition of failure is up to you. But it’s my sincere hope that you redefine failure in a way that’s helpful to your growth as a person.

Live an inspired life,

Jeric Timbang