How to Successfully Fail as an American
I need to get something off my chest.
As hard as it is to admit, I am a failure.
Writing those words is not something that comes easily. As an American, I am trained by my entire life experience to feel a certain sense of guilt in admitting it, regardless of the circumstance.
And why shouldn’t I? In a society that equates worth by our level of perceived success, it is an inescapable fact that to be American is to be locked in unwinnable, perpetual struggle of self-esteem versus that elusive, exterior demand that we excel constantly.
Unfortunately, given that so much of our daily lives are zero-sum interactions in which we either succeed or fail, this tends to see us lose an awful lot. And worse, each blunder or misstep sees us dig ourselves into a deeper hole out of humiliation. The result is an endlessly descending cycle into depression and self-doubt.
Perversely, there is a piece of failure that is often overlooked by many Americans: when you fail, you still succeed.
That success may arrive in the form of bruises, wounded egos, and stung pride, but it remains success. Unfortunately for so many, the true failure comes when we see that momentary pain as the last word.
Giving Failure a Face-Lift
The biggest step to see that success then requires a change in thinking, to reinterpret our relationship with failure as one where the concept itself is not terrifying, but inevitable. Taken as a constant, failure becomes something that is no longer an abstraction, but an old friend. He might be that friend who overstays his welcome, sure, but regardless of how hard you try to dodge him, eventually he’s going to stop by.
Would you prefer to see those unannounced visits as tragedies or opportunities to grow?
When I meet with new students, I make it a point to mention that I don’t care how many mistakes get made during our time together. Regardless of expectations, no one will be absent mistakes, and to expect that level of unreachable exceptionalism leads to one of two outcomes: either stress over the possibility of a mistake being made, or depression after that inevitable mistake occurs. It is always important to remember that it’s rare for failure to be the last word.
Let me repeat that using a well-worn phrase of Winston Churchill.
“Failure is not fatal.”
As Americans, to regularly consider the possibility of our plots going awry is practically an alien concept. But pretending to infallibility sends us well beyond self-deception and into a laughably transparent sham.
After all, the elections, wars, and economic missteps of the twenty-first century alone has given enough failure fodder to humble us a dozen times over. Still, we deny that those mistakes even exist. Still, we fight reality with both hands, viciously denying something that is as obvious as a nose on a face.
Why do we fight the truth when it is so plainly seen?
The simple answer is ego.
Moving Past Ego
Let’s face it: America is a bit of an arrogant place. We claim to be the world finest democracy as our institutions fail to protect the health and wealth of their citizens. We claim to be the world’s strongest military despite failing to bring our long-standing wars to any conclusion. We claim to be the greatest economy despite our financial markets more often feeling more like a house of cards than a more structurally sound home.
Driving all of that is a dangerous ego of American exceptionalism that can be traced back to our nation’s founding. Founded in sacrifice and struggle, the story of our country becoming independent is certainly a powerfully resonant narrative.
And it’s been completely distorted until it and the truth only bear a passing resemblance to one another. I cannot tell you how many times I have had students tell me that the Thirteen Colonies beat the British Empire all by themselves without a single shred of assistance. (The truth is that only by driving France and Spain into bankruptcy did we eke out a win.)
For all that, it does make perverse sense to believe the delusion. By reliving the successes of yesterday — and changing the story until we are the sole players — we insulate ourselves from the possibility that we might blow it tomorrow (or have blown it today).
In an attempt to buoy our own sense of self-worth and ego, we downplay any failure we make, painting over it with any shade of grey that might possibly cover our shame.
We force our failures from our mind, because in the grand scheme of our lives, we are defined by our successes.
That manner of thinking is inordinately dangerous. For one it drives the mentality that our past actions allow our present actions to be weighed and balanced out. Worse, by focusing on what has been (and how great our personal legend has been distorted by our own perception of the past), we lose sight of the implications of what we do now.
And all because to accept that we are not perfect is anathema to our very existence.
Make no mistake, ego is an excellent measure by which we can achieve great things, but only when we moderate it with humility. By overindulging in our own sense of self-worth, we ignore the possibility that we have the capability to fail.
The poet Alexander Pope once observed that “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.”
I wonder if a little ego isn’t ten times worse than those scraps of knowledge.
How to Successfully Fail as an American
If you’re feeling a little bit upset at the rising notion that you might have been screwing up your entire life, take heart: our generation is only the latest in a long line of failures.
In a way, we have been failing for our entire nation’s history in a legacy that traces back nearly 250 years. We blew it when our forefathers (and foremothers) first met the Native Americans. We blew it in how long it took for us to recognize the dignity of entire swathes of Americans, whether through slavery or the lack of political representation. We blew it by truly living out the values enshrined it our nation’s most revered documents.
Still, somehow, despite 250 years of blowing it, we are still here. And assuming we can learn just a few simple things, we will be blowing it for another 250 years.
How? It really boils down to two thoughts.
- Realize you’re going to screw up.
The first, and greatest, lesson is to realize that you’re going to blow it.
You will make mistakes that will form the basis of stories told in bars, restaurants, and parties for the rest of your life. You will screw up so bad that you won’t want to get out of bed the next day. You will blow it so much that it will seem like time has frozen just so you can be ashamed just a little bit longer.
I hate to burst your bubble, but the world doesn’t revolve around you. (It took me a long time to come to grips with this.) The sun is still going to rise tomorrow (and will for the next 4 million years, or so I’m told) and the human race will continue to run whether or not you messed up.
Your mistakes will be forgotten eventually, and that shame you feel? That will fade, too.
Remember, failure is a friend.
2. Keep setbacks in perspective.
Hand in hand with the first lesson is that we all have the ability, and maybe even the prerogative, to make mistakes.
Think about it. As Americans, we are trained to adore the tenacious underdog, the plucky screw-up, the lovable loser with the heart of gold. In movies, books, and television, we cheer anytime the little guy succeeds in achieving his or her goals.
Shouldn’t that be the standard to which we aspire?
I didn’t fail. I just found 2,000 ways not to make a lightbulb; I only needed to find one way to make it work. — Thomas Edison
It’s a liberating thought. Once you give yourself the freedom to be a screw-up, life becomes far more enjoyable and failure that much more infrequent as a defeat is re-contextualized as a momentary setback on the path to achievement.
The worst mistake that any of us can make is to believe that failure is a thing to be despised, an experience from which we flee with all our might.
The best mistake that any of us can make is to see failure for what it is: a perfect friend. Always willing to spend time with us, always willing to help us, always willing to teach.
It is with this in mind that I admit it once more.
I am a failure.
And that’s ok.