Updated: Dec 26, 2017
Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts. —Winston S. Churchill
I didn’t handle it well. Tears streamed down my face and streaked a mixture of dirt, sweat, and eye black along my jaw. I walked out the gate with my team and failed to even acknowledge my friends and family there to console me and say, “good game.” It was my first real loss as a starter in high school football, and I handled it with the maturity of a first grader, pouting that my team hadn’t continued its undefeated streak on enemy turf.
Yet this game became a turning point for me as a young athlete and young man. For the next twelve months, I constantly recalled the one hit up the gut where the opposing team’s middle linebacker shell-shocked me with the thud of helmet and pads like I’d never felt before. I held my own for most of the game, but the lasting memory of that one play drove me in every workout, every exercise, and every rep. I pushed to be faster, stronger and more explosive the next time I took my position on the battlefield. To be the one making not reacting to surprises next season.
Accepting Failures as Lessons
Failure remains one of my greatest challenges to this day. My wife and I don’t even play chess anymore because I hate to lose! Yet failure is possibly the greatest way to learn and improve. After all, how much do you learn and get motivated when every perceived avenue opens and points toward your ideal success? Not much.
But what about the encounter that challenges you, where you don’t know all answers? Where you have to work hard to prove your merit and sharpen your skills?
What if you took every failure as an opportunity to make needed changes to your approach or to deepen your character and work ethic?
Do you think the first model of an airplane or a racecar looks anything like the final product? No way! The creators see flaws as opportunities for better aerodynamics and greater efficiency. They test prototypes again and again to fine-tune performance. You and I can turn our failures into fine-tuning too.
This opportunity is not, however, an endorsement for venturing out unprepared. When you ‘wing it’ you do yourself a disservice by starting a dozen rungs down the ladder from where you could be. You don’t need to go on daredevil missions so you can fail more. Instead, seek to fail better. Work hard to be ready for success. And if you don’t succeed, look for ways to grow from the experience and become even better prepared for the next time.
Developing Strength Through Stress
Some people will tell you that winners just naturally win because they have what it takes. I don’t buy it. Very rarely are “naturals” born with the ability to be exceptionally good without intensive training. Mozart began playing the piano at age three and practiced so much that his fingers became crooked. Kobe Bryant practiced alone in a dark gym for hours and hours after finishing a game. Special Forces trainees face nearly impossible circumstances to hone their reactions under pressure and to build assertiveness under fire.
These naturals didn’t just fail at one point in time. They pushed themselves to fail better in practice every single day. They developed strength—unlike the trees in Biosphere 2, a scientific research facility at the University of Arizona.
In one research study, scientists planted trees inside the biosphere, protected from wind and other stressful elements. These trees grew faster and bigger than trees outside that had to hold up against the elements. But the trees inside fell over before they reached maturity. Why? Scientists learned that the biosphere trees hadn’t developed stress wood. Meanwhile, the trees outside the dome developed stress wood that allowed them to stand solid and strong.
Without failure we cannot develop stress wood. Losing that first football game challenged me to take my game to a higher standard. Imagine if my team had won. Would I have pushed myself as hard as I did for the next season? Maybe, but probably not.
Take a look at your failures. How can they lead you toward greater strength, maturity, and wisdom? Keep these lessons in mind with every gust of wind that blows your way.