Failure Is Good for You

[Originally posted at SF Novelists.]

It hurts, it sucks, and none of us want to have to deal with it, but the truth is: failure is good for you.

Within reason, of course. I could write an entire post, or more than one, full of disclaimers and qualifications to that statement. There are important ways in which failure is bad and counter-productive. But we’re pretty familiar with those, and what I want to focus on is the flip side, the one we like to forget, which is how failure makes you better.

Failure tells you to up your game.

The Olympics will be starting soon, so I’ll use them as my example. (I could use publishing, but the point I want to make isn’t specific to this industry, and besides, I don’t want to derail into arguments over self-publishing.) Let’s say you’re a runner. You want to compete in the Olympics. To do that, you have to qualify for the team, and in the process of doing that you run a whole lot of races — some of which you will lose.

Losing means you aren’t fast enough. You may still be a perfectly good runner; you’re probably a lot better than most people out there. But you’re not fast enough to achieve your goal. Now you have two major options: one, decide you don’t care that much about competing in the Olympics (at which point you’re free to go on running as a hobby, or do something else with your life); or two, improve.

If the bar for running in the Olympics was “you must be able to run a ten-minute mile,” most of us wouldn’t have to work very hard (in the grand scheme of things) to achieve that goal. Hell, I could do it, and I have crappy aerobic endurance + unreliable ankles and knees. I’d have to work a little bit to improve; the last time I tried to run a mile — more of a lurching jog, really — it took me about ten and a half minutes, so I’d need to shave that extra thirty seconds off my time. But see, right there: I’m already sliding back to my point, which is that I fail to meet a certain standard, and immediately start thinking about what I’d have to do to succeed. If you succeed the first time, every time, then there’s no need to improve.

And you’ll never find out what you’re really capable of.

I usually say that if I existed in the world of Harry Potter and you put the Sorting Hat on my head, I’d go into Ravenclaw. I like books and learning and intellectual challenges. But if the theory in this post is right, and the Sorting Hat looks not to your own personality traits, but how you value those traits, then maybe I’m wrong:

[…] every single person in Hufflepuff, regardless of their brains or heart or silver tongue, believes that the virtues they were born with are less important than the work they are willing to put in.

Whether or not you’re a fan of Harry Potter, you should go read that post. It’s about talent and how we mythologize it, about how nobody achieves great things without putting in the work to make them happen. Perfect pitch won’t do you an ounce of good if you never learn music. Athletic capability means nothing if you spend all day on the couch. But I want to go one step further and say that failure actually helps us pick up the gifts we have and carry them onward. Failure shows us where we’re weak, where we need put in more effort or rethink what we’re doing. It challenges us to see how far we can go.

I spent five years at a ballet studio that more or less ignored any student who didn’t have the potential to be a professional. Then I went to a studio where the teachers pointed out everything I was doing wrong. I took the Royal Academy of Dance examination for Grade 5, and got only “Merit” — just above a mere “Pass,” and below everyone else in my group. A year later, after more work on my flaws, I got “Distinction.” I improved more because I failed, and because I decided the proper response to failure was all right, let me try this again. I know I can do better.

We don’t like failure. It hurts our feelings. “You’re not good enough” can easily turn from a judgement of your skill to a judgement of your worth as a person, whether it’s meant that way or not. But don’t run from it; look it square in the eye, and think about what it means. Does it mean you’re trying to do something you aren’t suited for? (I will never be a runner — or, for that matter, a professional ballerina.) Does it mean the game is rigged in ways that need to be changed? (Women and minorities have long been rejected not because they lack skill, but because of other factors.)

Or does it mean you need to up your game?

Think about it — make your choice — and then go.