Failing feels awful. It makes us think that we cannot do whatever it is that we have just failed at. It’s embarrassing. We feel like failure is something to be avoided but it’s inevitable and we should learn to be more accepting of it. We imagine that successful people never fail but nothing could be further from the truth. The path to success is to keep trying, especially when you fail because that’s an opportunity to learn and advance.
As I write, it’s grading season for the Victorian kendo community. The Victorian Kendo Renmei (VKR) avoid the word fail; they compassionately refer to people as being unsuccessful. A few people going for the lower grade exams will be unsuccessful. Considerably more in the higher dan grade exams. I have been ‘unsuccessful’ in a kendo grading exam. It’s unpleasant. But, sooner or later, it happens to almost every kendoka.
The interesting thing about failing that exam was what I learned from it; it was a lot more than I expected. I’m not going to go into a long list of personal observations. The point is that you learn more from failure than from success. This is not just some cliché to salve your wounds. It becomes real if you don’t give in to your misery and you pay attention in that painful moment.
Even if you can’t find lessons in that specific experience, there is always the example of the daruma doll: fall down seven times, get up eight. This Japanese saying refers to the fact that success comes after many failures and only requires that you try one more time. Picking yourself up and going again is a lesson in itself. It builds strength, resilience and courage.
We have so much difficulty with failure because of the way in which we think about binaries. By binaries I mean things that exist as pairs of opposites, such as: good/bad, happy/sad, success/failure. The mistake that we make is to place a value judgement on the binary where we desire one and reject the other. Some Eastern philosophies, most clearly expressed in the Taoist yin-yang, perceive these binaries quite differently. In the example of the yin-yang each side of the binary is recognised as mutually dependent on the other. You can’t have good without bad or success without failure. One can’t exist without the other and therefore you must accept them both of have neither. In this case, identifying one side of the binary as good or bad is less certain. Each side has both good and bad. This is illustrated in the tale of the farmer whose horse runs away. (I’ll add the story at the bottom of this post.) Failure is good and bad. Feeling bad when you fail perfectly understandable, just don’t let the good part of failing escape you.
Kendo continually teaches us this lesson. Whenever we train, we try hundreds of times to make a good cut, an ippon. If we’re paying attention, as we should always be, then most times we realise that that cut was not perfect: it was a fail. But for decades we keep trying. Slowly we improve and occasionally we make a good cut. Even then, we try again.
Never think that ‘failure is not an option’. Lying to yourself is rarely productive. Don’t even try to avoid the bad feelings that come with failure. They’re a part of the experience. Most importantly, don’t miss out on the good things that can come from failing and whatever you do, don’t let it make you stop trying.
The farmer whose horse ran away
There was a farmer who tilled the fields for many years. One day his horse ran away. Trying to sympathise with him, the villagers said, ‘that’s unlucky’. The farmer replied, ‘maybe.’ Sometime later, the horse returned bringing three wild horses along with it. Rejoicing, the villagers declared how lucky he was. The farmer said, ‘maybe.’ When the farmer’s son tried to ride one of the untamed animals, he was thrown and broke his leg. The villagers lamented his poor fortune. The farmer said, ‘maybe.’ While his son’s broken leg was still healing, the military came to the village to conscript men into the army. His son was left behind because of his disability. The villagers smiled happily at the farmer for this happy outcome. The farmer said, ‘maybe.’