18 June 2012

Thoughts on failure and success

Everyone wants to be successful, right?  Who wouldn't want to have success in every endeavor, achieve anything you set your mind to?  What place does failure have in our daily lives?  The word failure conjures up a multitude of negative connotations.  Failure = unsuccessful; failure = the opposite of good enough; failure = falling short of your goals; failure = coming in last place (or second place, depending on your perspective).  In short, failure sucks.

But does it?

The NY Times published an absolutely fascinating article last September asking "What if the Secret to Success Is Failure?"  While this piece focused mainly on education and how failure and success fit into that area, many of the points could also be applicable elsewhere in life (like triathlon, of course).  The article looked at the way failure can positively impact a person's character development and ultimate success and happiness.  There is a focus on what they call "performance character" - such as effort, diligence, and perseverance - not simply moral character and the article states that failures in life can help lead to "the ultimate product of good character: a happy, meaningful, productive life."  The character strengths that were the focal point were zest, grit, self-control, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism, and curiosity.

So how are failure and these performance character strength intertwined?  If everything came easy and you found success at every turn, there would be no need to be gritty - to never give up, to never learn how to suffer, to never face a problem and figure out a way to overcome it on the fly.  The perseverance and ability to recognize your own shortcomings and work to overcome them and become a stronger, better person for it would never develop.  Why has failure become the enemy instead of the opportunity?

By now I'm sure most have heard about the commencement speech David McCullough Jr. gave at Wellesley High School's graduation a few weeks ago titled You're Not Special.  This commencement address was fantastic for its bluntness and substantially more interesting than the "Wear Sunscreen" address that went viral my senior year of high school (and, coincidentally was the exact speech one of our student speakers at my high school graduation decided to give.  Word. For. Word).  The heart of this speech goes hand-in-hand with the idea of failure (or, rather, experiencing failure and finding ways to overcome it and move on) = eventual success.  We live in a world where EVERYONE gets a trophy, everyone gets a medal, everyone gets a pat on the back just for showing up and participating.  If there are no losers, how are there possibly winners?  If there is only success and no failures, are we actually achieving our greatest heights - or, through trial and error, through failures, can we achieve more than we ever thought possible?  I love the lines: We have, of late, to our detriment, come to love accolades more than genuine achievement.  We have come to see them as the point - and we're happy to compromise standards, or ignore reality, if we suspect that's the quickest way, or only way, to have something to put on the mantelpiece, something to pose with, crow about, something with which to leverage ourselves into a better spot on the social totem pole.  No longer is it how you play the game, no longer is it even whether you win or lose, or learn or grow, or enjoy yourself doing it...  as a consequence, we cheapen worthy endeavors."   

I've failed more times than I've succeeded in triathlon.  But I learned more during those awful races than I ever did on my best ones.  And those races where I took those hard lessons learned from previous failures and successfully applied them when the situation called for it, averting a crisis and not just finishing the race but wildly exceeding all of my previously set expectations - that feeling I got crossing the finish line was made sweeter by all of the failures, all of the trial and error I went through to get to that point.  I used to do triathlon just to do it - to say hey, look at me, I'm a triathlete blah blah blah.  I'm still proud of my accomplishments, yes, but I'm more proud of how I've grown as a person through my involvement in this sport.  The people I've met, the places I've traveled to for a race, the dedication and perseverance that I've learned has all been invaluable to my character development.  I love what I am doing and I am in awe of how much it has changed me (hopefully for the better).

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