Debunking the Failure Myth


Throughout my nearly fifteen years as a Business Analyst and Project Manager, and via personal experiences that have been widely varied all over the United States (and Canada), I have noted that the word ‘failure’ has a very negative connotation, and I don’t mean just from its dictionary definition. Even as a child, you either “passed” school classes or “failed” them. Right from the time we are young we are taught that failing is bad and passing is good.

Teaching this to our children is, in and of itself, an epic fail, because it sets us all up with pretty unrealistic expectations. There is not one person alive who does the exact opposite of fail – e.g. succeeds – at 100% of absolutely every aspect of life. And yet we are setting our children up to believe that any failure of any kind is “bad.”

Let’s examine the dictionary definition to ensure we’re all on the same page. Merriam-Webster:

Definition of fail

intransitive verb

1a : to lose strength :  weaken – her health was failing

b : to fade or die away – until our family line fails

c : to stop functioning normally – the patient’s heart failed

2a : to fall short – failed in his duty

b : to be or become absent or inadequate – the water supply failed

c : to be unsuccessful – the marriage failed; specifically : to be unsuccessful in achieving a passing grade – took the exam and failed

d : to become bankrupt or insolvent – banks were failing

transitive verb

1a : to disappoint the expectations or trust of – her friends failed her

b : to miss performing an expected service or function for – his wit failed him

2: to be deficient in : lack – never failed an invincible courage — Douglas MacArthur

3: to leave undone :  neglect – fail to lock the door

4a : to be unsuccessful in passing – failed chemistry

b :  to grade (as a student) as not passing – The teacher failed only his two worst students.

Yes, these are the definitions of the word FAIL. And yes, FAIL is a word that is meant to be or sound negative. For every action, Newton’s 3rd Law tells us, there is an equal and opposite reaction. So the opposite of succeed is fail. The opposite of success is failure.

But is failure really “bad” – or is it simply that we a) have made our expectations unrealistic as I mentioned earlier, and/or b) aren’t seeing that just like something going up having to come back down, there is a valid reason for failure and that it’s all just as much a part of life as exhaling carbon dioxide?

Victoria’s Secret models and most female models in general, would have you believe that women are about an inch in diameter (think: walking skeletons) with no breasts and largely dour, pouty, put-upon (frankly a little bit frightening) facial expressions. If we little girls do not grow up and dress, look and act like these from-another-planet pod-chicks, then we’re failures.

Various religions around the world believe their way of doing things/being/believing is the only one true and correct way. If you deviate from their belief structure, then you are a failure and will not do whatever magical thing is at the end of their rainbow (e.g. go to Heaven, achieve transcendence, reincarnate, be godly and worthy of xyz thing/person/occurrence). Anyone who is not “on their team” is a #FAILURE. And, I should add, will be punished.

People have become so worried about Junior “feeling excluded” that they give ribbons or medals now for a kid to show up even if he or she can’t or doesn’t do whatever the thing is that used to get you a medal for completing. This teaches kids that nobody can fail and that failure is neither allowed nor acceptable since nowadays everybody’s a winner. Ugh.

Back when I was on my school track team, as hard as I worked in sprinting, low hurdles, shotput, discus and long jump to get my medals and ribbons, I would’ve been pissed offthat a kid who never came to practice, never even tried to run or work out and barely showed up to track meets received ribbons and medals just because her name was on the team roster. *picture steam coming out of my ears*

Thank the stars that kind of silliness wasn’t happening when I was coming up through the ranks. Why? Fact: It’s most emphatically not fair to those who work hard to achieve a goal (whether grades, medals, awards and ribbons in school or job promotions, college degrees, or enough money to buy a house or car) to give everyone something just for existing…which is where we’ve somehow gotten to right now. You don’t get a medal for taking up space. (Refer back to the original Greek games – aka Olympics – to understand the whole point of competitions and the subsequent honors awarded to those who excelled/won/worked hard to achieve the win.)

But that’s a story and mega eyeroll for another time…my point in the case of failure is that we as a society have made this very common occurrence the most unpleasant, unpalatable and essentially nonexistent entity in the universe…so that when it happens, people don’t know what the heck to do with it and think it’s the most god-awful end-of-the-world thing that could possibly happen.


Without failure you don’t learn a thing and whether you like it or not, you’re here on Earth to learn, not to get a ribbon for being born. Although that in and of itself truly is a miracle, it’s what you DO with the life you are given that counts!

I have examples, as always.


You fail a test because you didn’t study and you rarely paid attention in class. The lesson: if you want to pass a test, pay attention to the material/read the book(s)/take notes/listen to the teacher. Don’t go crying to your parents, who then think their precious peanut has been wronged and call the teacher to harass and threaten them into passing you when you don’t actually deserve it. The kids who passed the test worked for it. You didn’t. See the lesson, learn it, grasp it, DO it. (Parents: lesson learned for you is to give your child rules and consequences if they don’t follow them. It worked pretty darn well for all the generations before the Special Snowflake one.)


You tried for a promotion at work but “the other guy” got it instead. Instead of being angry with him, your boss or whomever else, examine why you didn’t get it. Do you need more education? More of a certain type of experience? Do you need to switch to a company that doesn’t practice nepotism? (lol hey, it’s not unheard of) Whatever the case may be, that’s your lesson.

Word of advice: Don’t try for a job you’re unqualified for because even if you somehow get it, you’ll find yourself woefully unprepared to actually fulfill the duties of the role and that experience will eventually wind up with you being worse off than if you’d stayed in the job you had until such time as you obtained the know-how you need for the promotion. Just as with the kids in Example One or in my school track example, you don’t get to be promoted just because you exist (or at least, you don’t deserve to be). WORK for what you want. Earn it. Be worthy of it. Then you can be proud of your achievement rather than the butt of the entire office’s jokes regarding the incompetent person that just got made the manager (or whatever the role is).


You want to be a hugely successful novelist. You’ve had this book idea for a long time. You finally write it and you self-publish it. It takes you months to get it out there on Amazon, but you make it at last! And sell two copies to your mom and grandmother. FAIL FAIL OMG FAIL!!!! Well, you failed to become rich, yes. But what’s the lesson here? It’s not “I WILL NEVER BE A GOOD WRITER I AM NEVER WRITING AGAIN” – that’s a kid throwing a tantrum because things didn’t go her way right out of the gate. Ugh. (A lot of these reactions from people make me go UGH, sorry.)

The lesson could be that you wrote what you wanted to write without actually examining what was selling in your niche or genre to ensure you were writing what that audience actually buys. Or it could be that because you’re an unknown, and only have one book, nobody’s going to pay for it to read it because nobody knows who you are, how you write or even sees your book out there amongst the millions (billions?) of other books. It could just be that you desperately needed spellcheck and a good editor to weed whack your book before it was actually ready for public consumption. Whatever the reason may be, the point is, you have one or more lessons here that, once learned, may very well lead to the conclusion you desire.

Word of advice: Just because you can belt out 120 characters per tweet or update everyone on Facebook as to what you had for breakfast, or write an email to friends or coworkers, does not mean you are actually a writer who a) can write and b) has enough talent to be a novelist. Writing isn’t a no-brainer idiot’s way to make a fortune that any hack can master. Writing has rules and parameters just like professional dancing, playing a musical instrument or ice skating. Yes, there’s room for creative flair, but not everyone who feels a beat can dance, not everyone who can plunk their fingers onto a piano keyboard is a pianist and not everyone who manages to stay upright on ice skates can be a figure skater. I’m sorry, but I’m known as a realist, so there’s my realism!


This is a big one any Project Manager out there will be able to identify with. You have planned to do something for months (in my professional world: a project). You have dotted every i and crossed every t. You’ve even come up with backup plans in case your first course of action fails for any reason. Yet for one reason or another, your project/thing-to-do doesn’t go off as planned. Now, yes, there are times us PMs want to tear our hair out because even if we asked all the right questions, other people may not have been paying attention or may have forgotten or just plain have given us the wrong answers. Or perhaps we dropped the ball. Regardless of the why, things happen that nobody can predict or that we aren’t quite sure will/won’t work.

That’s why at the end of every project, we go through an exercise called ‘Lessons Learned.’ We discuss what went well so we can do those things over and over again on subsequent projects to continue achieving those successes. And we discuss what didn’t go well – e.g. what failed – so that we know for the next project to pay close attention to whatever that thing was (the idea being to keep it from happening again).

You can do this in your personal life, too, with anything you’re tackling. What went well in the process of getting your son dressed for school this morning and what didn’t go well? The fact that Mikey went to school with two different colored socks and uncombed hair doesn’t mean you’re a failure as a parent. It just means now you know to pay closer attention to whether his socks match, and to ensure you allow time to comb his hair tomorrow morning before he walks out the door.


You tried to bake a cake from scratch for your daughter’s birthday. It didn’t work. The cake batter was still cake batter after two hours in the oven. Quick trip to the store to buy something. Does your child care? I don’t know…but if she does, and you want to do better next time you promise someone a homemade cake, don’t look at it as “OMG I’M A COMPLETE BAKING FAILURE I WILL NEVER TRY TO BAKE AGAIN” because that’s what your toddler would do. Look at what you might’ve done wrong. Go back through the recipe. Did you miss an ingredient? Did you skip a step? Did you buy a slightly different ingredient thinking “Well, it’s almost the same thing” and perhaps that was the problem? Google it, see if anyone else has had this cake recipe not work, or has used a certain ingredient and had it make their baking endeavor fail. The point is, your failure to bake that cake is actually just a lesson to teach you that you didn’t follow one of the steps properly somehow or use the right equipment or whatever. Lessons to be learned so the failure will not be repeated. Not a reason to throw in the towel or use the “fail” to prove that “you never should/can do or try the thing EVER AGAIN (once again, childish and tantrum throwing…leave that to the toddlers and be an adult, is my motto).

Examples such as the above showcase MY definition of “failure” no matter what Merriam and his buddy Webster say: Failure = lesson to be learned. Period. That’s it.

The myth of failure is actually myths, plural. That you should quit if you fail. That you should never try the thing again. That you aren’t worthy, aren’t meant to, shouldn’t. That you’re trying for something you don’t deserve. That you have some kind of nerve thinking you have any right to try for or do the thing. It’s like one of my favorite musical groups, Imagine Dragons, says in their song Thunder: “Who do you think you are? Dreamin’ ’bout bein’ a big star?” We are somehow taught that if you try one time and it doesn’t go perfectly, you are the biggest FAIL on the planet, and other people happily point at us and ask who the heck we think we are thinking we’re any different.

BZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZT!!!!!!! Thank you for playing, please try again.

So even if that high school jerk told you that you wouldn’t make it in the music world, just because your first album doesn’t sell doesn’t mean the jerk was right so you smash your guitar and become an Accountant. It means you learn what didn’t work and make your second album better.

Think about that the next time you “fail.” And here’s to many more failures to come…because the more you fail, presuming you are willing to learn and apply the lesson involved, the more you will succeed! At work…with family…in life.

Photo Credit: Deposit Photos PixelsAway

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