Learning From Failure

You know your failures. They are vividly (and painfully) etched into your consciousness. There is a reason for this and we’ll talk about that in a minute.

We are here to learn and grow, and the primary way we do that is through failure. Success is wonderful, but you don’t learn as much from it because success largely reinforces what you believe and do well. Failure on the other hand, is the product of stepping into the unknown, trying something new, taking a risk.

Learning new ways to think, believe and behave is the essence of being human, and the way we learn these things is through trying and failing until we get it right. So, although the process is difficult and painful and there are strong social prohibitions against it, failure is the essence of being human. As the cliché goes, “Good judgment comes from experience, which comes from bad judgment.”

Experiencing a failure is a good deal different than being a failure. Falling down doesn’t make you a failure, but staying down does. If you were perfect, you wouldn’t even need to make the trip.” The “secret” is to learn to work with and use your failures to grow from instead of just suffer through. So, the crux of the issue around failure isn’t failure per. se. The real issue is what we do with it. And as Ram Dass said, “The whole spiritual journey is a continual falling on your face. And you get up and brush yourself off, and you get on with it.”

Every life situation presents you with a range of choices. Within those options will always be one good response. That choice will be the one that moves you to greater compassion. The other choices are less than ideal because they will be expressions of your fear. And because of your fear and anxiety, you are often not in a position to take that one good option. Being compassionate in a challenging situation often leaves us feeling too vulnerable and exposed. So we make less than ideal choices to pacify our fear. We hold back. We don’t choose the best partner, don’t go for the brass ring and don’t stand up for ourselves if it might cause problems.

There is an interesting thing about these “less good” (fear-based) choices. These choices come from your beliefs especially about yourself. The thing about beliefs is that they cannot be true. Only the truth is true. Based in untruth, your “less good” decisions are guaranteed to create tension within yourself and in your relations with others, leading to inevitable failure and pain. So, when you make a decision based upon the belief that you are unworthy, you create a disturbance in The Universe.

The Universe cannot tolerate a disharmony, and so it must apply pressure until you come to terms with the false beliefs you hold about yourself (until you come to know and accept the truth). And until you do, the part of you that holds those beliefs and that drives your decisions, is going to be an ongoing source of difficulty and pain. Making “unhealthy” choices, the result will be pain, despair, discomfort and frustration. It has to be this way.

Failure is The Universe’s way of putting your limiting fears and beliefs in your face and asking you to change them, and the pain of failure is what motivates you to change. So, failure presents you the opportunity to move beyond your beliefs and discard them. It is an opportunity for learning and growth.

Sometimes our anxiety is so great that we do not see situations as they really are. This is a safety mechanism designed to keep us out of situations that seem unsafe. The pain of failure is also The Universe’s way of guaranteeing that you won’t go through life trashing everyone you have issues with. The pain and blowback would simply be too intense.

When it comes to failure, we serve a number of masters. We receive a great deal of pressure from our families, society (school, church, etc.) and especially our employers not to fail. In Western society, a slacker is a pariah. People who engage in the arts or spiritual pursuits are not considered to be “productive.” Today a mother must also have a career in order to be considered successful.

America’s city freeway underpasses are littered with society’s “failures.” And when it comes to ourselves, influenced by societal values, we sit in judgment of our own performance, often judging ourselves very harshly. We rarely give ourselves credit for our successes. But, what does it really mean to fail? What really is success?

In Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge and Bob Cratchit work in the same world but hold very different values. Each brings significantly different values to the story. Scrooge was the successful businessman, Cratchit, the compassionate humanitarian. So who was the more successful?

The power in Dicken’s story is Scrooge’s transformation from self-centered, greedy, resentment-filled miser, to a more enlightened, compassionate person. It is that transformation that raises human endeavor to the level of compassion and keeps a person from becoming what could be called a failure.

Consider this example: Assume you are not feeling good about who you are. There is a world full of prospective partners out there, but because of your beliefs (your damaged self-image), you’ll rule out the healthy people. You know that those relationships would ask you to take emotional risks that you aren’t prepared to take. So instead, you choose from the “B,” “C,” or “D” groups. You will seek out someone who feels damaged as you do. They are safer.

So what happens? Your unresolved issues must inevitably rub up against theirs, creating conflict and leading to the creation of resentments. That conflict is The Universe’s way of letting you both know that something is amiss.

So, having passed on the really good choices, you now have three options: bury your feelings and suffer through a dysfunctional relationship, bail out or learn and grow from the experience and let the relationship go wherever it needs to. If you decide to work on yourself, sometimes your partner will chose to grow with you, which might keep the relationship together. Otherwise, as you grow, you will likely leave the relationship behind, which is different from simply bailing out without learning anything.

The whole point of this experience is that through failure, The Universe has given you an opportunity to learn about your fears and beliefs and transcend them. So, yes, you will have experienced a failure. It happens to all of us, it is inherent in the process of growth. But, since you must fail, it is wise to try to fail intelligently and learn from your experience. On the other hand, if you have not learned from the experience, then you will have dug yourself a deeper into a hole. You will be doomed to repeat the pattern until the pain gets so intense that you are confronted with a crisis that leaves you no option but to change.[i]

Our culture has turned the business of failure on its head. Greek warriors were told to either carry their shields home or be carried home on them. Failure was not an option. Roman civilization was built on power, endurance and perseverance, qualities that served colonizing powers as late into history as our own western expansion.

As far back as the 1500′s, Western society was well on its way to the worship of the successful – the rich and the powerful. Protestant reformers such as John Calvin and the Puritans who came after him, embraced the concept of “the chosen people,” i.e., the successful, the industrious, the rich. Calvin declared that the Puritan God loved the rich more than the poor and that wealth and success were signs of divine favor. This was religion tailor-made for the age of industrialization. Darwin’s theories of species dominance would propel these concepts well into the 20th century.

In our own culture, wealth and power have come to mean success. In many cases of financial “success,” people have only learned to persevere through challenging circumstances. And although the church has been left in the dust, these people still cling to the Puritan ethic and plow through life, efforting through everything they do.

Sometimes wealthy people find real success, but more often than not, they don’t. While they bore large holes through life with their hard work, they often learn little, even when they “succeed.” They tend to live on the surface, and while they are very good at making a living, they are generally not very good at making a life. Used for the right reasons, perseverance is a wonderful quality, but for many of these people, it just sets them up for a painful train wreck in the future.

We seem to assume that successful people are somehow gifted, that they come out of the gate, unblemished. Success is either in their genes or came by osmosis by attending the right prep schools and colleges. We have been taught that people who are well educated or make a lot of money are somehow superior.

Learning from a failure is a good deal different than merely experiencing it. It is easy to get knocked down. When you meet a truly successful person, he/she will be able to illuminate his/her path to success through the various failures that preceded it. The difference is that these people learned from their experiences, got back up, brushed the dirt off and went on embracing a different view of themselves and the world.

There is another group of people who fail, it seems, at everything, and what is worse, they learn little from their experiences. For them, failure confirms the dreadful image they hold of themselves. Being a failure might seem easy; but actually it is not. Being a failure requires a great deal of work and personal energy. As someone said, “To be a success you have to work hard for about 20 years; but to be a failure, you have to work about twice as hard.”

There is a third group of people who get lost in analyzing and intellectualizing everything, trying to “understand” their way out of the box. The intellectual approach doesn’t work, but does distract them and keep them from having to address their pain. Then there is another group who are simply too afraid to try. They lose themselves in work, or drugs and alcohol, and are afraid to look up and even consider the light.

It is the unwillingness or inability to learn from experience that separates failure from success. There is little value in the punch-drunk boxer who gets back up after being knocked down in order to endure more punishment. Until he learns from his experience, all he gets from life is pain. The fancy-dancing boxer with the great footwork isn’t likely to get as hurt, and although he may look great and stylish in the ring, if he does not engage, there is little beneath the show. He is not likely to learn much from his experiences either.

Then there is a third fighter who has learned to maximize his talents, whatever they are. He has practiced his skills and learned from his defeats. (People often fail to see this hard work aspect of the process.) He may be fast, he may be slow, but whatever he is, he comes at a challenge with the integrity of his beingness. He engages. He may not always win, but don’t bet against him.

You have had your failures. We all have. The question is, have you learned and grown from your experiences so that you won’t have to repeat them? That is what separates success from failure.

Unraveling the beliefs that sit at the core of our decision-making that inhibit our life choices, is the secret to becomming successful. I searched for years to find the best process for healing my own inner woundedness and I found it in the shamanic journey process, something I write about in my books, Healing The Shadow, Truth and Journey to Enlightenment. These can be found on my web site www.rossbishop.com, or from Amazon. The journey process itself can be found on the CD, Shamanic Journey, which is available from the web site.

[i] Sometimes we are hurt by the decisions or behavior of others, but that is a different circumstance, beyond the scope of this article.

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