The Paradox of Failure

Oct 23, 2020 5 Min Read

I quite literally miscalculated

The school bell rang. We were expecting Mrs. Jacob for the next period. We waited in anticipation. She entered the classroom. We rose and greeted her in unison, “Good morning Mrs. Jacob”. She sat us down. With a calm tone, she said, “This is your first monthly test. Don’t worry, you’ll get better at this”. 

It was our first monthly Additional Mathematics (Add Maths) test. In our class of 28, only 5 people passed. I was not one of them. It was a surreal feeling. I frowned outwardly. But inwardly, I was crying and somewhere in-between, trying to figure how to explain to my parents when I got home. 

The feeling of failure. We’ve all been there. 

Failure. Don’t like it. Can’t live without it. What a paradox.

I’ve had my share of failures. From my class with Mrs. Jacob to more recent days, here are some things I’ve discovered.

1. Failure can break you but it can also make you. (Your Attitude Matters)

Many of our daily ‘necessities’ today were because of failure. Someone discovered something didn’t work, and tried something else thereby making a new discovery. From pharmaceutical to aviation, the list is endless. What’s the difference? Their attitude.

Not if but when you fail, what will you do? Will you immerse yourself in bitter dissapointment or will you get up and try again? The optimist will say they discovered something new. Let’s give it another go. The pessimist will say, what’s the point of trying again. You may say, I’m getting closer or there’s no hope in this. What’s the difference? Your attitude matters.

Don't just let it walk all over you, man.

Very early in my career, I was (sort of) asked to leave a project team due to personal differences with the project manager. I did not agree with his way of working, and I chose the highway. As a result of that experience, I was left to hunt for projects to ensure a healthy utilisation rate as a consultant. That led me to close my first client engagement with a leading GLC – it was also the first project where I sold and executed the delivery. The icing on the cake was a few months later when the Managing Director invited me to his office to show me the Malcolm-Baldrige Award (quality excellence) they received as a result of the team’s effort. It was one of my proudest moments in consulting.

You can choose to wallow in self-pity of failure or choose to be an overcomer of inferiority complex. Your attitude determines your altitude (Maxwell). 

2. Failure can bring you pain and it can also bring you pleasure. (Your Perspective Matters)

We have all experienced the pain failure brings. Be it a project or an organisation, parenting or competitive sports, failure creates a sense of loss that cuts deep into our hearts. Joy is replaced with sorrow, mourning instead of dancing.

Failure can also bring us pleasure. The pleasure of knowing that we did our best and gave our all. The satisfaction that we are closer to the desired outcomes. A step closer to the destination of success. It signifies movement and an attempt to make progress. It is an active verb.

You can choose to wallow in self-pity of failure or choose to be an overcomer of inferiority complex. Your attitude determines your altitude

When I was with a non-profit organisation, we explored the unconventional idea of bringing our services to where people lived/worked instead of having people come to our facility site. I know it doesn’t sound unusual in the present day, but when we first introduced the idea about 8 years ago, it was not yet the norm. We experienced ‘pain’ from physical and infrastructure systems setup, to culture and mindset shifts.

Having the equipment was only the first step; convincing people to make the shift was another huge task for the team. Slowly but surely, through consistent feedback and tweaks, every resistance was an opportunity for us to do something to win people over. Today, it is like fish swimming in water. Had we not made the transition then, it would have placed the organisation in a very challenging position during the recent pandemic.

Taking pleasure amid failure is about having the right perspective. How you see things will determine how you handle things. 

3. Failure can stop you and it can also start you. (Your Purpose Matters)

Failure can derail and deter one from accomplishing what he/she had set out to do. Whether it is a weight loss programme or to simply read a book, the inability to complete the mission/task creates a sense of uncertainty and therefore deemed to be a failure. The sense of accomplishment is watered down to what could have been or might have been. 

Failure can also start you. A clear purpose can help you focus on overcoming your failures. If your purpose is compelling and convincing, it will motivate you to ‘have another go’. Look at athletes and their determination to compete and complete the race/game. The rigorous training discipline with the purpose of winning the race/competition.

Failure is a humbling experience. The sense of defeat reminds us that we are not invincible afterall.

About 2 years ago, I started Invigorate Consulting. It was (re)birthed out of a challenging season in my life. In hindsight, my journey hit a speed bump and not a dead end. It required me to slow down, get into gear again before accelerating. The pain of failure allowed me to review and evaluate my life before starting again. It gave me greater determination to sharpen my purpose and fueled my desire to live out my purpose – “To make a difference in the lives of people and organisations through leadership impact and influence”.

Your clear and compelling purpose gives you the reason for your existence. It can start you and set you on course to achieve greater success and significance. 

Failure is a humbling experience. The sense of defeat reminds us that we are not invincible afterall. When we fail, we must have the right attitude, perspective and purpose to enable us to get back on our feet. Failure is a speed bump, not a dead end.

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Tags: Emerging Leadership, Youth

Bernard is the Founder of Invigorate Consulting, a firm seeking to connect people and organisations to their purpose. He has over 20 years of management consulting and corporate experience with global organisations. He is also a seasoned facilitator. He enjoys travelling and is excited about the second half of life.

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